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Interning… in a church?!

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Katherine Watson took the more unusual route of spending her gap year working in a church. Here, she tells Features why it was one of her best decisions.

When I tell people that I was an intern at a church on my gap year, I get one of four reactions, reactions which I like to categorise in the following way: the ‘what on earth would possess you to do that?’; the ‘that’s a bit weird but not interesting enough for me to continue this conversation’; the ‘that’s really interesting please tell me more’ and the incredibly rare ‘I know someone else who did that!’.

I spent most of my year working with our teenagers and children (had no one ever told me to never work with children?), as well as being in the church office for four days a week, so I really got to see the “scandalous” underbelly of church life. That may be a slight exaggeration – my gap year wasn’t an episode of EastEnders – but there really are so many unseen advantages to a voluntary placement.

Let us talk about the elephant in the room. Money.

Image credits: Val Entertainment
Image credits: Val Entertainment

You don’t get paid very much (if anything at all) for working with a charity, so you need to have a strong motivation to go for this option. Personally, I wanted the experience of working before I went to university and, having loved serving in church as a regular member, I wanted the opportunity to do this full time. It also looks good on your CV if you show that you are passionate about the area of industry you want to go into, as by being unpaid you show that are doing it purely for the experience.

Lots of people are keen to give you advice when they learn you are attempting an internship. As someone who has come out the other side of a gap year and lived to tell the tale, and therefore considers herself an expert on all things internship-related, I have my own gems which I am waiting to bestow on the less experienced, but all this advice can make it hard to know how to get the most out of your placement. Having said that, I am still going to give you a couple of my own ideas on how to capitalize on an internship.

Firstly, programme your social filter to never let the words ‘that’s not my job’ leave your mouth. I came into my gap year prepared to do anything, and found I had passions and skills about which I had never even thought before, and by being prepared to learn in any area, I not only got a wider breadth of experience but also got on better with my colleagues, and enjoyed myself more.

Secondly, ask lots of questions. I wish someone had told me that 18 months ago; I had a full-on battle with our unbelievably complicated and generally horrible office printer during my first week because I was too scared to ask someone how to use it. A seemingly simple task became a nightmare – allow me to set the scene.

Having checked that I had the right printer, and the right settings, and having clicked “print”, having been using printers for years, I foolishly thought my job was done. How wrong I was. On arrival at the printer in the hallway, I found it seemingly unaware of my document…its black screen staring me down, challenging me to come and take it on. So, not wanting to look like an idiot in my first week, I confidently strolled up to type in my newly acquired username and password; except there was no keyboard. I used my Sherlockian skills of deduction to determine that it must be a touchscreen, but when I tapped it, nothing happened. I jabbed the screen harder, checked that it was plugged in and switched on at the wall, and then returned to the screen and frantically punched at it with my finger, but to no avail. And the printer was definitely mocking me.

I went back to my desk, and – no word of a lie – I googled ‘how to print from a Konica Minolta printer’, but surprisingly, I found no answers. I decided to do the mature, adult thing…wait until someone else printed something. A few minutes later, I heard the sounds of someone doing just that, and – with razor-sharp reactions – I sprang out of my chair and went to collect my document from earlier. Empty paper tray.

At this point, I was composing my resignation letter in my head, ‘I regret to inform you that I am forced to resign, due to difficulties managing the office facilities, namely; the printer…’. In the end I plucked up my courage and asked our administrator; she showed me where I had been going wrong (the on/off switch was inside the ink tray cover…what sort of design is that?) and we just laughed about it. She later became one of my mentors and like a second mum to me over the year.

Working within a charity – and even more so at a church – is very different from working within a business. To start with, there is more of a “family” atmosphere, which was compounded for me because I had been in the church my whole life; there are very few experiences more surreal than receiving an acceptance letter from your employer, who is also your best friend’s dad, or sitting in a meeting with your line manager, who also happens to have been at your parents’ wedding.  In that way, it was like EastEnders; everyone knows everyone. This has its difficulties and its benefits, as although it can be harder to be honest with colleagues and not take things personally, it also leads to an amazing culture within the organisation. That’s clichéd, yes, but our office really was a home from home for me, and I was so encouraged and inspired by the people I worked with and the values they had.

Although you won’t be moving in next to Bill Gates any time soon if you take this more unconventional route and do a voluntary placement, you may very well come out knowing more about yourself, more about working with other people, and more about your future career. I never looked back.

Katherine Watson

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