Interning helps solidify career path for freshmen

internshipLast year, I was lost. Well, not geographically speaking (though I did get lost an embarrassing number of times on campus). Rather, I was stuck at a crossroads of career choices — somewhere in No Future Land.

My compass vanished early in the year when I got cold feet about my print journalism major. From then on, I became a hopeless case of collegiate confusion: I enrolled in random courses, compulsively browsed USC’s list of majors and minors and dumped my problems on unsuspecting college advisers

“I don’t know what to do,” I’d tell them, hoping that they would lay out my future for me in black and white.

“Well,” they’d say with a shrug. “You’re still a freshman. You have time.”

I was forlorn. How was I supposed to pick a major, a career? The options were infinite; I was tempted to pick something out of a hat and hope for the best.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to resort to the hat, because my two summer internships — one at LG CNS in Seoul, Korea, the other at CityBeat, a weekly newspaper in Cincinnati — pointed me in the most unexpected directions.

My first day of work at the LG CNS multinational headquarters in Seoul was a blaring warning of the drudgery that was to come.

I arrived at the imposing building in a black blouse an incredibly bright floral skirt — my first mistake, as I realized once I wedged myself into an elevator full of black suits.

When the traveling can of sardines reached the 13th floor, the overseas business unit, I stepped out into what I can only describe as a sea of gray. The carpet, the cubicles (of which there were many), the walls, even the people looked ashen.

No colors, photographs, personal trinkets or traces of happiness were to be seen anywhere. As I walked past, I sensed heads turn — but only briefly, as there was work to be done.

My introductions were conducted in the most proprietary manner, complete with courteous bows and guarded smiles.

And then I was directed to my cubicle — my own prison-like abode — and handed a laptop, a bunch of pamphlets about LG and their products, projects and offerings (yes, they do more than make your touchscreen phone) and nine hours to kill.

Needless to say, those were the longest nine hours of my entire life.

“It’ll get better. The first day is always the worst,” my dad told me reassuringly on the phone that night.

But it didn’t get better.

Day after day, I found myself in the same place: staring at a computer screen, fighting off headaches and waves of drowsiness in my drab cubicle. While the diligent employees around me clacked away on their overworked keyboards, sealing huge deals with foreign companies, I could barely muster enough energy to stay awake.

But I did try — I downed an average of five cups of coffee before noon, brought snacks to help me concentrate, and wore my best buttoned-up attire. But the coffee went straight to my bladder and not my brain; the snacks were both too loud and too messy and my colorful (albeit conservative) wardrobe stuck out like a sore thumb amidst the black pencil-skirt crowd.

Sure, I gained a respectable paycheck and business experience that’ll look good on my resume, but I was miserable. Don’t get me wrong: My month at LG CNS was a good experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. But it wasn’t creative, or inspiring, or me.

Before LG, I thought that international business could be a good fit: Traveling was my first love, and big-name corporations always seemed to have a glamorous appeal.

Yet when push came to shove, I really didn’t care about legal tenders or profit margins. I hated sitting in a hierarchical office with a bunch of boring suits. The whole time, I felt like a fraud: I smiled politely when what I really wanted to do was scream, run around the office, and snap people out of their Office Space stupor.

And that’s when I realized something: No matter how great the monetary incentive, I could never do something I’m not passionate about. It’s like what Jack declares in What Happens in Vegas: “I’d rather do nothing and be happy than do something I know I don’t love.”

The only way to find out whether you love something or not, before you’re stuck in a job you hate, is to intern. And through my stint at LG CNS, I found out what I didn’t love — an invaluable, semi-painful experience.

On my first day at CityBeat, an alternative news and entertainment weekly in Cincinnati (my hometown), a yappy terrier was the first to welcome me to the office. The second was my “boss,” Danny — a scruffy, tattooed 20-something wearing the most beautiful work suit I’d ever seen: a T-shirt and jeans. The third was a droopy basset hound.

You could almost hear my internal sighs of relief.

After a laid-back introduction with Danny (and the dogs), I met my other “boss” Maija, a spunky, foul-mouthed hipster in her twenties with blunt-cut bangs — a real-life Zooey Deschanel if I’ve ever seen one. At this point, my only concern was that I wasn’t cool enough for the job.

Talk about a 180. In place of the stale surfaces of corporate were walls plastered with posters and event flyers. Instead of a dress code, CityBeat invited individuality — which could mean anything from jean cutoffs to tank tops. And in the place of a harshly regulated office was a laid-back, anything-goes work environment.

During my shifts (eight hours a week, with flexible days — not bad at all), I worked on arts and entertainment listings, helped copy-edit and fact-check and wrote occasional articles. Outside the office, I wrote for the website’s blog —not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

I never found myself staring at the clock; my shifts flew by. And despite my lowly status, I felt like I belonged.

Maybe it was the hilarious debates we had in the office about Bruno. Or the socially flagrant, left-wing posters in the women’s bathroom. Or the response I got when I asked my bosses whether there was a measure of decorum I should hold onto in my articles (the answer was a glorious, unanimous “no!”).

But whatever it was, this much was for certain: I loved being able to express myself without a filter. I loved not having to check whether my e-mails or office behaviors were acceptable in some unspoken code of conduct. I loved wearing bright skirts to work. And I loved the dogs.

One involved multimillion dollar deals and conservative two-piece suits; the other, blogs and a nonexistent dress code. My internships might have been radically different, but together, they helped me discover where I wanted to be — and where I didn’t.

There’s a train of thought that freshman year is too early for internships. As a successful product of not one, but two of them, I beg to differ. You might think you know exactly what you want to do with your life, but until you get out there and try careers on for size, you never know which one will fit. Freshman year isn’t too early; it’s the perfect time to play the field before it’s too late.

For me, my internships weren’t just a resume booster. They gave me a boost of faith in myself — and my major — when I needed it most.