By: Eleanor (Ellie) Bowman
The last semester of course work as a master’s student at Texas State University in the Therapeutic Recreation program was quickly approaching. This meant it was internship time. Before going into my journey through this process and the steps I took to search and find my internship placement, I want to briefly describe my undergraduate experience.
My undergraduate degree is in Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences (from Texas A&M University). For this program we were required to find and actively participate in a 400-hour minimum internship at an approved location related to our degree. Seems simple, right? With few requirements the search was on. At this time, my focus was event planning. During my time as an undergrad I participated in two summer internships in event planning: one in New York City and the other in Los Angeles. I learned from those internships that getting the initial search started early pays off in the end.
Fast forward to my master’s degree. It is important to note that my experience will vary from many other students, but I do think the steps I took can be of some help.
Before starting my master’s program I did a little research on recreation therapy internships, just to see what it entailed. I started a short list of placements I thought would be ideal for me. My original list only included 2-3 options, so as my first semester started, I was eager to get moving on the internship process for real. Some of my fellow students thought I was “jumping the gun” too soon. However, as I researched more and more, I quickly learned that each internship site had different requirements, applications, and application dates. To me, this was even more motivation to get things going. Another thing I recommend to students is to attend as many professional conferences as possible. Not only will this will help with networking and building rapport with fellow professionals in the field, but it also expands your field-specific vocabulary, which will later help you during the interview process. I attended a conference the semester before my master’s program began and another during the first semester. I was able to make contacts not only for internships, but also developed a deeper knowledge about therapeutic recreation as a whole.
With that being said, by December of the first year of the program, I began my initial communication with the sites I was interested in. I started early for four reasons: (1) I planned to apply in-state (Texas) and out-of-state (California & Colorado); (2) to confirm that each site I was interested in still offered an internship; (3) to find out what the requirements were (CPR, First Aid, etc.); and (4) what the application process included (standard application, essay, short answer, etc.).
I received several emails back saying internships were no long offered due to regulations and program changes. For all the rest, I had to make sure the internships met both the NCTRC requirements and my school’s requirements. I also started to receive several questions regarding how my internship would differ from an undergraduate internship, as the requirement for CTRS is a bachelor’s degree. To my knowledge, the internships are the same (at least that has been my experience).
So by now, I had made initial communication with the sites I was interested in, though many told me I was “really early,” but they did send me information about applying and asked me to reach out to them in a few months. Remember, though, that many of your first-choice sites may not be close to home. You have to start thinking about where you might have to move temporarily, how much it would cost to live there, where you would live, and what type of transportation you would use. Short-term leases for apartments are tricky to find and can be significantly more expensive that the standard monthly rent. It’s never really too early to start thinking about the specifics of how you will cover these extra costs.
Jumping forward, I began my email communication with the selected sites again, briefly touching on what we had previously discussed. To my surprise many sent me applications immediately after email communication. I took note that some sites do not send out applications until after an interview is completed. With these sites, I had to submit my resume and cover letter first (don’t forget to customize each resume and cover letter!). For others I learned that I needed to obtain my CPR and First Aid certification. I also took part in Suicide Triage Training and Gatekeeper training, becoming certified in both (each online course took about 8-10 hours). Something important to mention here is that during the spring semester of my first year in the master’s program, I became increasingly interested in focusing on mental health and psychiatric populations. This was the driving factor for both of the previous certifications. The following summer, I also participated in a low ropes program, becoming a certified facilitator.
Due dates for applications began to creep up, the earliest being due August 1st. Upon the spring semester ending, my focus for the summer was internship applications, internship applications, and more internship applications. I was determined to find a placement before the fall semester, which definitely paid off in the end. As I started working on the applications, I realized I had to truly dig deep in my reasoning for choosing this future profession. Many of the sites I was interested in had general application questions (name, school attending, and internship semester inquiring for) and essay type questions (personal definition of TR, why ‘this’ site, goals, and why TR). For students in the process of looking for internships, I will note that many require submission of letters of recommendation (anywhere from two to four) and official transcripts from all universities attended. I wanted to stress this because requests for both letters and transcript take time. Don’t put this off!
Once my applications were complete, essay questions answered, and letters and transcripts requested, I was ready to submit the applications to the designated sites. Then came the waiting game. For someone who wants to know things right away, this was the hard for me. I did start to hear back from sites, though, and they wanted to set up interviews. I was filled with joy and excitement that things were moving along.
Phone and video interviews were the norm for me. I did not experience any in-person interviews, but if you are applying locally you might have the opportunity to interview in person. I was a little apprehensive about the phone/video interviews, feeling unprepared for questions to come. As the interviews started, I was asked to provide a brief background- okay easy I’ve got this, talk about what I have done, where I have gone to school, and what lead me to recreation therapy. Then came the more direct recreation therapy questions, like, “What modalities do you like best?” “What interventions do you prefer?” “How do you handle a group that is difficult and use assertive skills?” After the first few interviews, I began to feel more at ease and anticipated – to at least some degree – what questions I might be asked in subsequent interviews. The field-specific vocabulary that I learned at the conferences I attended became very helpful here.
Once interviewing was complete and internship offers were coming in, I was faced with having to make a decision on which placement to accept. Should you find yourself in this position, my advice is don’t underestimate how hard it is to juggle these choices. Remember that you have been submitting applications and interviewing on a rolling time frame. You may receive offers from one site before knowing the outcome of another site. In that case, you’ll have to make decisions based on incomplete information. I was lucky enough to have several wonderful offers from my master list. If this should happen to you, my best advice is try and hold out for offers from your top two choices. I had to do this, declining several great placement offers in order to whittle it down the top two. My comparison list ended up being between option (1) a full time paid internship and option 2) a placement from my original list. I ended up accepting the offer from my original list, UCLA Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, and have never looked back. It is important not to think about “what ifs” in this situation.
I will be completing my internship by the first week of May. I plan to take the NCTRC exam the beginning of the second week of May and graduate from the masters’ program at the end of the second week of May. I hope my experiences will help students prepare for their internships and be open to what may come. My wish for all current interns: enjoy the remainder of your time at your placement! And, best of luck to all those currently in the process of finding and becoming future interns!