Before graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Chelsea Tate had completed an internship at a congressman's office in San Diego.
"I did it for the same reasons any student does an internship — to get a foot in the door and network," she said. "But what I learned was how to answer the phone politely and other clerical work. … It just wasn't what I expected."
The experience paled in comparison with her time at another program — Irvine-based College Works Painting.
The program has students complete a seven-month internship in which they run their own house-painting businesses.
Students say the experience is less about painting and more about gaining the leadership, teamwork and time management skills needed to make it in the work world.
Matt Stewart, co-chief executive of College Works Painting, helped found the program in 1993. The first year, it trained 75 interns in Southern California.
Today, College Works provides thousands of internships in about 35 states.
"We have approximately 50,000 people that go through the interview process," Stewart said. "After that, there are around 2,000 we train. They start a business from the ground up, where they conduct all marketing, sales calls, hiring painters and managing them through the summer while we provide them with the training and back-end support."
Tate had 25 houses painted under her business while interning for College Works last year.
Starting in February, she went through the same steps all interns in the program complete: attending an introductory seminar to review marketing and time management strategies, meeting with a College Works district manager for one-on-one training, hiring and managing the painters for their business, reaching local homeowners to inform them about their services, walking through homes to do estimates with new clients and then, hopefully, close deals with their clientele.
Former intern Derek Jorgensen said the responsibilities are what attracted him to the opportunity.
"It was the idea that I wasn't going to shadow someone around and do assistant work for them," said Jorgensen, who completed his internship in 2005 as a student at UC San Diego. "[As a College Works intern] I'd wake up and think, 'OK, I have to manage two people today and give them feedback,' which I didn't know how to do before."
Shying from greater responsibilities at an internship could mean losing out on what the experience has to offer.
"There's a period where you want to lay low, learn the culture and learn when it's appropriate to speak up," said Suzanne Helbig, director at UC Irvine's Career Center. "But at some point you want to step up, ask what else you can do and take initiative. Hanging low for too long would be a mistake."
Other valuable takeaways include building a professional network, attaining communication and teamwork skills and gaining exposure to the working world, according to Helbig.
Austin O'Donnell, who interned for College Works in 2010 in Arizona, said learning to manage his time was "worth its weight in gold."
While interning, O'Donnell played intramural sports, took on a 15-unit course load at Arizona State University and worked as a bouncer three or four nights a week.
When his College Works district manager saw that the heavy workload was taking a toll on him, she offered help.
"She knew I wasn't managing my stress, and she knew it before I did," O'Donnell said. "I learned that if I managed my time, then I could manage my stress. It was nice to have someone keep me afloat through that."
By the time Tate completed her internship last summer, she ended up with references from her College Works district manager and her clientele.
"[As interns] we may look young, but when clients see us do walk-throughs and estimates, they see our level of professionalism," Tate said. "Now you'll have 25 people who can [attest] to what a hard worker you are."
In addition to training students who are studying business, College Works has served the interests of engineering, pre-law and pre-med students, Stewart said.
He said more than 30 interns have gone on to be College Works vice presidents responsible for hiring district managers and interns.