My internship, up to this point, has indicated that working for the federal government is not as intimidating as one might imagine. In fact, in my opinion, it is less intimidating than my experiences working for state and local governments because there is a wide support net to help when things go poorly. I was worried that entering this internship would require me to be producing perfect deliverables at all times; however, that has not been the case. Specifically, I have found that my supervisors are always willing to assign me a major project but will also take the necessary time to review it and provide me feedback. In this way, a semi-hierarchical structure benefits the employees, knowing that they have many sets of eyes on their finished product.
I have also found that, to be successful in this industry, you must be flexible and patient—two virtues which I am working on. This works in tandem with all the layers of support because, with all those extra set of hands comes many more rounds of approval and, for lack of a better term “bureaucracy.” This has taught me that, wherever possible, I must be proactive and email follow-ups; I must be cognizant of others schedules, particularly those with a lot more on their plate; and I have to ask questions very frequently. In terms of asking questions, this was another area I worried over—I presumed that asking questions was a sign of incompetence or weakness. However, it is always better to clarify than to see a project through incorrectly.
In terms of EPA-specific skills and competencies, while there are definitive organizational structures, the EJ field is still very collaborative. As such, we do not work in silos and, in fact, we have frequent working meetings in which we devise projects together in real time. This facet of the industry requires teamwork and coming prepared to each meeting, as cliche as it sounds. With everyone’s busy schedule, it is important to make the most of the few hours carved out of a week so that we can create the best final product and ultimately serve our Region 8 community better. Additionally, being distracted in these meetings indicates to coworkers that the task at hand is not being taken seriously or is a perceived waste of time.
Lastly, it is imperative to bring your own personality and sense of humor into the workplace. Too often student interns assume they must be “professional” and this translates into a rigid version of oneself. I have found—and have been told—that one of the best benefits of having student interns in the workplace is the high energy and new dynamics which come along with them. It is possible to be both professional and yourself in the workplace and it makes the experience more enjoyable for yourself, your coworkers, and supervisors. Just last week I talked with my one supervisor about his grandchildren and the best places to hike in Colorado—this conversation didn’t detract from the meeting but was rather a nice reminder that we are not just employees, but we are human too.