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Practice Makes Perfect (Connections) with Career Immersion Program

By Marco Santana

William Piper has already had quite the productive summer.

The 21-year-old Beacon College student has basically figured out his future: he wants to work in cybersecurity.

Piper came to this conclusion after spending a month in Beacon’s Career Immersion Program this summer.

The internship-driven program places students at Central Florida area businesses so they can experience life in the workforce.

This year’s CIP partners included: A Forever Home Animal Rescue; Amazon; Artist with a Purpose; Aurora InfoTech; CareerSource Central Florida; Data Graphics; Elevate Lake; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Lake Cares Food Pantry; Mission Resort + Club; MMD Computer Center, Inc.; The Brownwood Hotel & Spa; Think In Print Shop; UCF FIEA; USA Roller Chain & Sprockets; and Wild Horse Rescue Center.

Piper spent his time at U.S.A. Roller Chain and Sprockets in Clermont and Aurora InfoTech in Orlando.

“It was eye-opening for me,” said Piper. “They treated us like family and we got to shadow lots of departments to see how a business runs.”

Piper now plans to pursue a raft of certificates in cybersecurity this summer.

“Without the help of [the program] I might still not be sure what I want to do in the future,” said Piper, a rising senior studying computer information systems.

His experience is exactly the kind of result that Beacon College wants from its Career Immersion Program.

The program partners with businesses that are either in Central Florida or closer to a student’s hometown.

The idea is to give Beacon College students access to potential networks while also providing avenues to learn skills they need to succeed on the job.

Such opportunities could give students a leg up when they are ready to join the crowded workforce, said Melissa Bradley, the director of the school’s Center for Career Preparation.

“It’s important for folks to recognize Beacon College when they are looking to develop a pipeline,” she said. “We want to be that source of talent.”

Across most industries, the predictions look dire when it comes to the size of the workforce compared to available jobs.

One way to combat that disparity is to build and support internship programs. However, the number of organizations that offer paid internships have been on the decline. The National Survey of College Internships found that two of three internships offered by four-year institutions, on average, are paid opportunities. At two-year colleges, that number shrinks to 50 percent.

The people behind the study explained that internships “can make a big difference in students’ academic development” and that they can “determine future career outcomes.” That’s why they are crucial at Beacon College, which devotes four semesters of a typical curriculum to career development, Bradley said.

Students “get hands-on experience of building a career through resumes and handshakes,” she said.

The CIP program works because it has established partnerships with businesses and initiatives across the region. For instance, CareerSource Florida engaged participants in workshops on interviewing for the job. On a trip to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Orlando, students learned about robotics and how artificial intelligence (AI) plays a role in the company. Another trip brought students to UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a graduate school in Orlando that focuses on video game careers.

“They have been a tremendous partner in bringing in our computer information science students to show what a graduate program looks like,” she said. “It’s a matter of getting in front of the right partners who are already embracing the neurodiverse workforce.”

The success of Beacon’s program comes from doing what they can to change the terminology, Bradley said.

Bradley considers internships a form or “experiential learning” and “mentorship.”

“Internships are highly competitive,” she said. “Also, these (CIP) opportunities are getting in front of students at an early age. It’s fierce, it really is.”

But the education for an institution like Beacon College, which specializes in instructing neurodiverse students, doesn’t end with the students. Some businesses also have to be educated, Bradley said. That means supporting them through the hiring process — sometimes even into their onboarding process.

“If they can equip their employees with the right support tools and mentorship, they can see that the program’s success will translate into their company’s mission and goals,” she said. “It’s a perfect nexus of all of these groups recognizing that we have talent here. After that, we want to be sure they are successful once they are hired.”

Piper’s approach has been to treat the internship as if he’s already had the job. “I was thinking that I needed to show up and do my best; be respectful,” he said. The Career Immersion Program not only gave him some good experience. It also expanded his network, which could pay off down the road. “It helps us experience how companies actually work,” he said. “It also provides a way to make connections that can help us in the future either in jobs or as references.”