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COVID Can’t Stop the Learning: Interning During a Pandemic

Sophie Chance behind the Cobb sign
Sophie at Cobb headquarters

With Labor Day behind us and highs in only the low-to-mid 70s and 80s, summer is taking a bow. It’s a perfect time to reflect on a challenging and, yes, unprecedented, time.

Summer is normally a busy time for undergraduates around the Prestage Department of Poultry Science. Many finish up their spring courses and head into summer internships. This year, though, it was a little less straightforward. Some students were able to do their internships, with modifications, while others weren’t.

Read on to discover how and why our Director of Undergraduate Programs, Lynn Worley-Davis, helps students get internships. “My goal is to help students see all the possibilities with a poultry science degree,” she said.

“Testing the water”

When it comes to a career, poultry science students may not know what to expect. “Most students have a set plan when thinking about a career. Often students do not understand what a specific job requires nor do they understand the depth and breadth of the poultry industry or research in poultry science. Internships allow students to ‘try the job on’ over a summer and decide if that path is for them,” Worley-Davis said.

“I encourage all students to seek internships. This allows students to test the water before graduating,” she added, emphasizing that “‘testing the water’ is an important part of career decisions [and] help[s] students decide on a career path.”

“We encourage [students] to apply for multiple internships or research opportunities. It is a heck of a note to get through four years of college; get a job; and then decide you hate what you are doing,” she said.

The most successful internships involve structure and opportunities for students to do varied and challenging work. The goal is for students to learn more about a job or field, not just be a “‘warm body'” filling in. Worley-Davis also noted that “internships are a mechanism for companies to interview potential employees as well,” making the relationship reciprocal and mutually beneficial.

The benefits of internships are many and varied. Students develop needed skills, including communication, critical thinking, problem solving, time management and learning to work with diverse populations. Worley-Davis said, “internships can make or break a student’s decision to move into an area of employment or research.”

Getting internships

Worley-Davis works with numerous industry and allied industry representatives to help the companies find the summer interns they need, with the hope that these opportunities will lead to future employment. Companies come to campus to participate in the Fall Poultry Science Seminar and often interview students afterwards.

In a normal year, Worley-Davis also takes undergraduates to Atlanta for the US POULTRY College Student Career Program (CSCP), held during the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE). It’s an opportunity to network with companies and arrange internships. This past January, 32 students traveled to Atlanta, GA to participate in the CSCP. Sixteen students had internships lined up when they returned to Raleigh.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 many of these opportunities were cancelled,” Worley-Davis said. She added that even with a cancelled internship, “participation in programs and events of this nature offers the students a chance to practice their interview skills and to network with industry representatives.”

Interning during COVID-19

Some students, like Mary Gray Davis and Sophie Chance, were able to do their planned internships. Others, like Hannah Lewis, couldn’t continue as planned. They shared their experiences and reflected on what it all means.

Tell us about your internship — including COVID adaptations.

Sophie Chance: I was a farm intern at Cobb Vantress in Rose, Oklahoma from June 1 to August 7. We were supposed to start May 15 but it got delayed to June 1.

I shadowed every aspect of the farm from the Pedigree Geneticist, the Selection Team — categorizing pedigree birds based on conformation, physical attributes and other heritable traits to the Reproduction Specialist — collecting semen and inseminating hens for egg production — to working in Hatchery and Grow-out Houses, monitoring proper amounts of feed, water consumption and bird weight, cleaning houses, inspecting poultry for diseases, and egg collection.

Mary Gray Davis: I was a Feed Mill Intern for Mountaire Farms on the Delmarva Shore in Delaware and Maryland. I started June 1. We have daily temp checks and masks are required when walking around.

I created the Safe Feed/Safe Food Plan for all six feed mills owned by Mountaire (in Westover, Frankford, Millsboro, Candor, Scotland County and Statesville).

Hannah Lewis: Working in the Live Operations side of Tyson Foods Poultry Production/Operations in Cumming, Georgia. It was supposed to be 12 weeks, but was cancelled because of COVID-19. Tyson released a statement to interns saying that they wanted us to have the best experience possible, and so they were suspending our internships while their operations were pushed to keep up with the demand due to COVID-19 and the restrictions that went along with the pandemic.

Was this your first internship? What made you apply for an internship?

Sophie: Yes. I did not apply for it, I met the Cobb recruiter at a career fair in Missouri during the AFA leadership conference.

Mary Gray: No, second one with the company. Went back because the people are amazing and I want to work in feed milling within the poultry industry. My internship project was different. Last year I focused on starter feed degradation, and this year for the first part I created all of the FSC36 Safe Feed/Safe Food Audit books for all of the feed mills they own. The second half of my internship will be focused on field pellets and corn grind and how those effect each other. This part will be focused is North Carolina.

Interns at Tyson
Hannah (second from left) during her first internship

Hannah: This was going to be my second internship with Tyson Foods. I worked as a Poultry Operations intern last year, based out of the Wilkesboro, NC processing plant.

I had a lot of fun but wanted to experience more of the live side of poultry production, so I applied and asked if they did internships that were more focused on that aspect of the commercial industry. I was really intrigued by all that goes on with caring for the birds prior to them being processed at the plant, and wanted to do more research through a summer internship project that entailed solving problems with the live birds that go towards providing protein for people. This second internship was going to help me do that.

What was the best thing about your internship experience?

Sophie: The best thing about my internship experience was getting to know all the amazing people that work for the company, from the management down to the hourly workers.

Mary Gray Davis holding two chickens
Mary Gray with some feathered friends

Mary Gray: Being able to create a program that will be used company-wide and my mentor. My mentor’s name is JR LaPearl, and he is the Regional Feed Mill manger for the Delmarva Shore, and my current mentor for my extended internship is Adam Downes, the Director of Feed Ingredient Purchasing. He asked me to come work for him after seeing my work last summer and this summer.

My experience was positive because of him because he let me run with the project as much as I wanted to, and let me have the freedom on how I ran my project the first year and how I set up the book for this year. He would help guide me when I needed it. He also gave me the chance to be a leader every chance I got, and if there was a learning opportunity he would take me along so I could see how it would be handled in an industry setting.

What was the most challenging aspect of your internship?

Sophie: The most challenging aspect of my internship was the adjustments and flexibility needed due to COVID. New safety measures were being implemented weekly and networking with upper management was challenging due to the lack of in-person interaction.

Mary Gray: Nothing really, enjoyed every part of it.

How does your internship (planned or completed) fit into your overall undergraduate plan?

Sophie: After my undergrad I intend to complete my masters and possibly my Ph.D. in poultry science with a focus on genetics. Being out on the pedigree farm this summer allowed me to understand the complete cycle of breeder flocks and how selection and genetics play in.

Mary Gray: I plan to work in the feed milling industry within the poultry industry, hopefully in regulations or research.

Hannah: I plan on going to veterinary school in order to become a veterinarian for commercial broilers.

I was looking forward to learning a lot more about the care that goes into keeping houses full of birds healthy and happy, as well as what details are involved with how the genetics and selective breeding contributes to a commercial broiler chicken’s incredible productivity.

This internship was going to allow me to see firsthand how the industry works so that I can be better equipped to work in it, and hopefully learn more about providing these animals with the best care possible while they live out their lives and their purpose for society.

What advice do you have for other students interested in internships, especially during COVID-19?

Sophie: Be flexible, know that things could change at any moment, but there is always a bright side, and know that the companies want you to come just as much as you want to intern.

Mary Gray: Research companies that had interns over the summer, and talk to other students that took internships, even if it is in field you do not think you would want to go into; the experience may change your mind.

This pandemic cannot and will not stop us from learning and growing.

Hannah: Don’t be discouraged if your internship got cancelled; use this time to research other opportunities and prepare to get back out there and get another one next year!

Additionally, use this time to build your knowledge so that whenever your internship is rescheduled or you get a different experience, you will learn even more and be able to go farther than ever before with it! Also, just don’t stress too much about what your future looks like…this is a scary, unprecedented time but you, me, and WE will grow from it and get through it! This pandemic cannot and will not stop us from learning and growing in the end.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Sophie: As another piece of advice, I encourage students to leave their comfort zones by interning in other parts of the country and not let location be a factor in their success.

Mary Gray: Go out of state for internships if you are able to. It was the best decision I made regarding my future career. I have been able to make so many more connections and friends through going out of state. Most of the time you are only gone for three months, and you will make so many friends while at your internship that you will not want to go home.

Hannah: Doing an internship may seem scary or daunting at first, but it will be such a wonderful experience overall and will really push you out of your comfort zone. You’ll undoubtedly learn a lot about living independently and working full time, and you’ll make friends that will last a lifetime. All of those memories and skills that you gain will stick with you wherever you go and in all that you do, so just take the plunge and apply, and if you get one — then go for it!