Bieler Family Internship Program provides essential workers and experience

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| Caitlin MacDougall

The Bieler Family Internship Program has provided hundreds of students with support and valuable work experience for over 10 years. In an average year, 50 to 60 students register to receive credits for full-time internships lasting at least 10 weeks. When McGill University announced its closure in mid-March to respect government social distancing and quarantine policies due to COVID-19, campus staff had to think fast to continue to provide high quality internship opportunities to undergraduates.

Essential workers

Kendra Gray, Internship Officer

Kendra Gray

Kendra Gray, the Internships Officer for the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, realized early on that students registered for the summer internships were being affected. McGill prohibited non-essential internships and all international travel for staff and students – about a quarter of opportunities are abroad. Luckily, as a faculty focused on the applied sciences, many internship positions qualify as essential services in the agriculture, food science and bioresource engineering industries in particular. The team was able to approve about 30 internships after reviewing them individually to ensure that all safety protocols were in place.

Some examples of internships that were approved as essential work include: Quality Assurance/Quality Control at a Montreal-based food company (Food Science student); chemical waste recycling at a Montreal-area environmental services company (Bioresource Engineering student); and agricultural work in the Montreal and Sherbrooke areas (Agricultural and Environmental Sciences students).

Flexibility is key

Janina Ruffini worked spent her internship in Professor Jennifer Ronholm's lab

Janina Ruffini, then a U3 Life Sciences – Microbiology and Biotechnology student, worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Ronholm Lab at Macdonald Campus in summer 2019, where she extracted DNA from 180 isolates of E. coli and S. aureus originating from cases of bovine mastitis.

Students normally start their internships in May. This year, because of the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the guidelines around start dates and internship lengths are more fluid in order to respond to employers’ needs. Some students are also able to complete their internships remotely from home. This allows international students to complete internships in their home communities as long as they respect local regulations.

“We recognize that students are going to be increasingly working in a world with work-from-home options, so we acknowledge that work-from-home internships are important training,” explained Gray. “We may allow remote work in the future,” she added.

The office also reached out to Macdonald Campus researchers to make them aware of government funding for hiring students, to enable more local internships.

Approximately $45,000 in funding will continue to be awarded to students in the internship program, to support the direct costs of transportation, lodgings and supplies, among other things. The internship awards are not salary for students and as many students as possible are supported so long as their work meets the course requirements.

Essential in more ways than one

Sarah Foster examines a barley field during her 2019 summer internship

Sarah Foster, then a U2 Agricultural Economics student, checks a barley field for condition and growth stage, while working as an Agribusiness Intern in summer 2019 for Richardson Pioneer in Dawson Creek, B.C. (Photo: Dallas Herie)

While practical work experience is essential to students’ resumés and prepares them for the job market upon graduation, the interns are also important team members for many local essential industries that need knowledgeable staff to operate during their busy season. Agricultural production and agri-food transformation in particular do not stop for a pandemic – they become even more important to ensure a safe, secure food system.

Students completing internships for agricultural businesses gain valuable experience that will help them get a job, often with the company they interned for, upon graduation. According to a 2017 study conducted by the University of Guelph, there are four jobs available for every graduate from an agricultural or agri-food program in Ontario – numbers mirrored in Quebec and across Canada, with the gap between the number of trained employees and job openings growing each year.

How you can get involved

If you have internship positions you would like to advertise for the summer, contact kendra.gray@mcgill.ca. You can also support the internship program through a gift. To learn more about the experiences of the 2019 interns, you can read up on them here.

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