Internships aren’t the only way to gain practical experience while you’re in college.

Hands-on Learning Opportunities

Hands-on learning is incredibly flexible, and these types of experiential learning opportunities can be tailored to any academic or career interest from museum studies to marine biology. Whether you have a specific career path in mind or are still looking for your passion, here are some programs and facilities to look out for during your college search. Check out our book Colleges That Create Futures for many more opportunities on fifty college campuses.

Experiential Learning Opportunities

Hands-on OpportunityReal Campus Example
Co-Operative Education (Co-Op) A paid professional experience that a student completes for an extended period of time, often alternated with course work. For example, a student may work full-time for six months, followed by six months of classwork, and then repeat the pattern. Full-time undergraduates at Northeastern University have the option of completing up to three six-month co-ops in five years or as many as two six-month co-ops in four years. Co-op coordinators work with students one-on-one to prepare for co-op, find and apply to jobs, and reflect on the overall experience.
Externship A temporary job-shadowing program that allows students to get an introduction to a field or profession. These are typically short experiences anywhere from an afternoon to a few weeks. Externships can be a requirement for an academic course or an experience that students can seek out during winter or spring breaks. Through the Babson College Externship Program, students can have one- to five-day job-shadowing experiences during school breaks. The program is geared toward first-year students, so that they can start identifying their strengths and career interests early on.
Internship Gives you the opportunity to work for a company or non-profit organization for a limited amount of time, anywhere from a week to a semester. These can be paid or unpaid (though many schools have programs that will fund unpaid or low-paying internships) and allow interns to learn more about a field of interest while completing tasks or projects alongside real employees. Every year, 500 students in Vassar College’s Field Work program engage in internships off campus, lending their talents to nonprofits, government agencies, human services organizations, and businesses. A sponsoring professor consults with each student to guarantee the educational merit of the internship and provide it with structure, such as writing a final paper or maintaining a journal throughout.
Leadership training Can happen informally through your campus experiences, but many colleges have dedicated leadership centers or workshops where students can develop skills in communication, motivation, and teamwork.

The Higdon Student Leadership Center at the College of Charleston offers students a number of different leadership development opportunities from one-off workshops to week-long immersion experiences. Signature programs run the gamut from  retreats—including a Cougar Excursion retreat for incoming freshmen—conferences, lectures, networking events with community leaders, and a Leadership Certificate Program .

Project An extended problem-solving activity either solo or in collaboration with a group. A few examples: a research-based thesis, works of art (plays, photography, or musical compositions), productions or performances (curating an exhibit or giving a recital), designing a prototype, writing a computer program or drafting a business plan. Through the Arizona State University Incubator, students can secure the mentorship, training, and even office space necessary to grow the seeds of big ideas into full-fledged startups that create real economic, social, and environmental change. Projects with real legs progress to the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative program, which provides up to $20,000 in seed financing.
Research A scholarly or artistic activity that produces new knowledge. On a college campus research experiences could run the gamut from working alongside your professor in a lab, writing a thesis, or completing a capstone project for your major. The Student-Faculty Research Initiative at City University of New York—Hunter College provides opportunities for students to collaborate with their professors on important research. Students get to have one-on-one access to their professors, which includes perks like learning to use advanced scientific equipment or developing and implementing research methodology.
Service Learning Combines a learning experience with community service. You are both seeking real objectives in a community while at the same time developing a greater understanding of community issues and skill-building on a personal level. At Rhodes University, fellowship programs like the Rhodes Learning Corridor, the Community Development Fellowship, and the Summer Service Fellowship, which partner with nearby public schools, encourage students to engage with local government and to address poverty, health and environmental issues in the Memphis community.
Student organizations Bring together students with a common interest in anything from sustainability to investment banking. Clubs are great places to do some good, have fun, and develop leadership and collaboration skills along the way. At the University of Pennsylvania, serving as co-chair of the student dance company Penn Dance involves coordinating all details of scheduling rehearsals and theatre space, running company meetings, managing show budgets, and generally spearheading the group. One former co-chair told us , “It was probably the experience that prepared me more than any other for managing projects in the ‘real world.’”
Study Abroad A travel experience that combines academic, work, and cultural experiences.

Middlebury College’s Language Schools, which offer immersion instruction in eleven languages during the summer, complement the Middlebury Schools Abroad, located in sixteen countries and thirty-seven cities. The study abroad programs usually include opportunities for an internship or a volunteer experience.

Unique Facilities Unique facilities and community building experiences are great sites to experiment and build skills. The Residential Colleges at Rice University are completely student-governed, and students are assigned to one—even if they choose to live off-campus—for the entirety of their time in school. Each residential college has its own student government and manages its own budget.