MAINE, USA — College semesters are winding down for students across the country. It's the end of an unprecedented past couple of months after most campuses shut down as a precaution to COVID-19.

Now, summer internships are on the minds of many of these young adults, since a lot of companies have had to cancel programs or shift to a remote format. It's making the normal push for students to network and grow their professional connections a bit more challenging.

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FocusMaine has been offering its FocusMaine Intern Experience since 2017. In 2018, they partnered with Educate Maine, and the program has evolved to provide "professional development, social opportunities, and networking for summer interns working in Maine." That can include students who go to school in-state and out of state, but it's designed to help them build connections that could lead to jobs in Maine's workforce after graduation. 

"Our goal is really to give students career experiences, exposure to Maine businesses and leaders," remarked Kate Howell to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. She is the program manager for Educate Maine for the FocusMaine Intern Experience. 

COVID-19 has definitely brought around changes, though. 

"In years past, we've had the opportunity to get a lot of those students together in large groups and do networking events, have people meet in person," Howell said about the program. 

As a health precaution, FocusMaine is adapting this summer, by making the entire program virtual. Howell says staff understands the importance of networking, which is why they will be hosting at least 12 virtual sessions (including a series of workshops, panel discussions, and presentations) from June through August to connect students with local business leaders. 

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Unlike years past, participating students this year will not need to be enrolled in an internship since the coronavirus pandemic has made that impossible for some. 

"There are so many students that have lost their jobs or aren't able to do what they had hoped for this summer," Howell expressed. "We really want to be able to supplement that with some skills that will help them be great employees in the future."

The program is valuable to Maine employers, as well. Karen Bradbury is the vice president of learning and development at Unum. She says Unum's interns and the company itself value FocusMaine's efforts equally.

"These young folks in school need these experiences, and companies like Unum depend on the talent, and we depend on replenishing the talent," Bradbury told NEWS CENTER Maine.

She added that Unum has been able to keep its interns on this summer, even though they will be working remotely. Throughout all of their locations, they have hired 44 interns, including 18 here in Maine. 

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Internships can look different for everyone, though. That was the message at a virtual panel on Tuesday to kick off FocusMaine's expanded program. Alicia Gaiero was one of the young speakers. She is a recent graduate of the University of Maine at Farmington and says she believes she was asked to speak because of her non-conventional experiences.

"I had already pursued this non-traditional track that students are probably going to have to experiment with as a result of COVID-19 and internship cancellations right now," Gaiero said.

She has used her education and go-getter skills to become an entrepreneur, starting 'Gnarly Neckies', a line of ski accessories, and planning to open an aquaculture farm in southern Maine. She says that rejections during college from traditional internships didn't stop her from making connections and finding her own way.

"I think having someone that's your age that you can relate to and see that they are able to find balance in the college student life but also working to start or run their own business -- it's really valuable," Gaiero expressed.

Above all, the message these Mainers want to pass on is that there will be a need for young workers in our state, even if it looks a bit different than before.

"Our Maine students are strong and smart, and we want to keep them here," Howell encouraged.

The virtual FocusMaine Intern Experience is open to all college students who attend a Maine school or who are in the state for the summer. It's free, and all students need to do is fill out a brief online registration form.

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus.

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