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Virtual Internships: The Survival Guide

Career • August 18, 2020 • Gabi Portincasa


What you’ll learn

  • Tips for virtual internships
  • How to network virtually
  • Ways to work remotely


For college students, the last few months have been filled with change and uncertainty. In the blink of an eye, in-person classes were shifted entirely online, all social and sporting events were cancelled, and the coveted summer internship plans for some students were left up in the air.

While some companies had to cancel their internship programs in light of the pandemic, many found a way to go virtual. In fact, a recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that 42% of respondents were moving their interns to a virtual program for Summer 2020.

We talked with Gabi Portincasa, senior at the University of Tennessee, and a Sallie Mae intern, about how she’s managing her first virtual internship.

How did you get your first online internship?

While I was searching for internships during my fall semester of 2019, I applied for an internship at Sallie Mae within the Compliance department. I interviewed for the position during my winter break in 2020 and landed an in-person job for the upcoming summer.

As I was getting ready to finish my spring semester and head home for my internship, the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold. Sallie Mae had originally contacted me about their in-person internship program, but during the April/May timeframe, it became more apparent that the internship would move to a virtual setting.

As more details about my virtual internship came into view, I worked with my manager and mentor to figure out my virtual start date. Sallie Mae hosted a virtual new hire orientation through video chat. Multiple members from Sallie Mae’s Human Resources team educated the class on the company’s values and introduced us to the variety of resources available to company employees.

What is it like working from home?

Working from home definitely has its ups and downs. The hardest part about working from home has been finding a good place to work. With the rest of my family working from home as well, we try our best to respect each other’s personal spaces and stay quiet throughout the workday.

That said, having my family at home has also been amazing, too. My sister usually lives in New York City but has spent the majority of the pandemic with us. It’s nice to hang out with her for a mid-day pick me up or take the time to sit down and eat lunch together.

One of the best things about working from home is not having to commute every day. It’s nice being able to shut my laptop when my day is over and not worry about sitting in traffic on the way home. I’m obviously saving money on gas, too!

What are some ways someone new to a virtual job can scope out their potential workspace?

I currently live with my parents and my older sister, and everyone in my family is working from home, so I had limited options to find the “perfect space” to work. I did know that I would need a quiet space, with limited distractions, so my best option was my bedroom. Sallie Mae provided me with two monitors to use at home, which has been very helpful.

Scoping out a potential workspace depends on your current living space, who you live with, and access to a reliable internet connection. If you can work from your bedroom like me, that’s great. But, if you have family members or roommates who are distracting, try working from your local library or coffee shop.

Is it a tough transition from working in the office?

I think the toughest part of my transition to virtual work has been the lack of in-person interactions. I truly enjoy working in a team setting, so not having the ability to go into the office and sit next to my team has certainly been an adjustment for me. I miss having the ability to go to one of my teammates’ desks and asking them a quick question, but to my advantage, everyone has been super responsive in our new work format.

What’s the best way to network virtually?

As old school as it sounds, the best way I’ve been able to network virtually has been via email. I have been proactive throughout my short time at Sallie Mae and made it a point to email and meet different members and teams across the organization to learn more about their specific business areas.

Sallie Mae recently implemented video chat which has made it a lot easier for me to meet other employees “face-to-face” during meetings. It’s definitely easier to call in and not have to worry about looking a certain way or cleaning up your space, but I really do think it’s important to use the camera/video function, especially for people you are meeting for the first time. Although each meeting participant is remote, the video function allows me to put faces to names and develop more in-depth working relationship with fellow employees.

Have you ever experienced video call fatigue?

Although I do really enjoy using the video chat feature to connect with coworkers, it’s easy to get emotionally and physically worn down when you’re staring into a camera all day long. To help combat fatigue, I like to take quick breaks throughout the day to get up and away from my desk and clear my mind.

What is the most important piece of advice for someone starting a virtual job or internship?

Stay organized. Whether you keep a daily planner, a calendar on your wall, or utilize the notes section on your phone, it’s important to keep track of important milestones.

One of the best things a previous intern told me to do was to block out your Outlook calendar for time dedicated to projects, as well as personal or professional development. This way your coworkers will know you’re busy and may not respond as quickly to instant messages and emails for the time being. It’s so much easier to accomplish your tasks if you’re laser-focused for a specific time period and not trying to break up your work throughout the day.


Gabi is the Sallie Mae Compliance intern and a senior at the University of Tennessee. When she’s not watching the latest television series, you can find her planning her next trip or searching for a new local coffee shop.


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