Penn State sophomore shares her adventures in interning

September 02, 2003

"Adventures in Interning"
By Tara Burnham

The summer has almost come to an end and school is just about to begin again. A year ago, I never would have imagined that I would have spent the summer after my freshman year in college interning with VH1 Press. I could never have predicted the excitement, drama, and hours of work that came with this summer, let alone the sincere enjoyment I experienced while working in New York City and doing what I love to do.

I can still remember my first time walking into MTV Networks in New York City. It was during Spring Break, and my dad had taken the day off of work to escort me. Earlier that morning, we had gone to Court TV to meet with Marketing and Public Relations managers as well. I was interviewing for summer internships in Public Relations, or PR. Court TV was intimidating enough, because it was hardcore corporate, but I definitely liked that atmosphere. Having some of my nerves worked out due to one interview being completed, and my dad's humor to calm me, I was almost ready for my interview with MTV Networks.

I stood gazing down onto Times Square awaiting the dream I never imagined coming true, the possibility of working for MTV Networks. The interview went well. It went very well in fact. After Ellen screened me, she sent me up to a VH1 floor to talk with a lady named Lori Hornik who was a VH1 Publicist. VH1 sounded like a great way to start my first college internship, especially considering it was still part of MTV Networks, just like Nickelodeon, the channel. I did my best to explain why I would be a great intern, the perfect intern, despite my racing heart and nerves. Since Lori was very laid back and honest with me, I wasn't as scared of her as I thought I would be, and perhaps this helped to make my interviewing skills successful. After I returned to Ellen on the 16th floor, she informed me that Lori had called her and said that the job was mine if I wanted it. I nearly fell out of my seat. Thinking I would have to wait weeks upon weeks before knowing my fate I was in complete and total bliss.

The remaining months of spring semester didn't seem to go by quickly enough and by the time my internship orientation rolled around on May 27th, I was bursting with anticipation and eagerness to begin a summer like no other. Orientation was given by the internship coordinators, Ellen Czelada and Suzanne Lumerman-Rosenthal. It was a heady experience being placed in a room full of other aspiring students just like me. In fact, it was almost intimidating. As I heard the kids at my table discuss what previous summer internships they had completed, everything from CNN, Sony, and Hollywood, I began to feel less adequately prepared than them despite my early attempts in life so far to educate myself about entertainment and PR. Worse yet, I felt like such a little kid playing with the big kids considering most of these students were going into the senior and junior years of college and I had just finished my freshman year of college. Luckily though, when I was asked by the kids at my table what year I was going into, they joked around with me and bragged to other tables that they had "the PR prodigy" at their table. Settling my nerves with their joking compliments and easy going attitudes, I felt prepared and ready to get into gear with MTV Networks.
That first day of my internship was definitely a great start. I was introduced to the other three girls I would be working with: Courtney, Emilie, and Lauren. Each of us were also introduced to the people in the VH1 Press Department: Luis, the department assistant; Anne, the executive assistant to our senior vice president; Lori, the publicist who interviewed me and was also our supervisor; Michelle, a junior publicist; Toni, a senior publicist; Tracy, the vice president of VH1 Communications; Brett, the director of corporate communications; and Laura, the senior vice president of VH1 communications. Everyone in the department seemed unique, chic, and gave off an air of that "entertainment industry cool".

One of the biggest differences I noticed between working on VH1's floors and MTV's floors was that the dress code was extremely different. MTV was like a teenager's wonderland with baggy low-cut designer jeans, "Rock Hard" t-shirts, grungy dyed blue hair, and piercings…everywhere. However, Nickelodeon's floors looked like a Crayola box had exploded on top of green and orange slime covered lights, couches, and desks while elementary students had been let loose with colored chalk on the walls (which actually was true, some of the Nickelodeon walls are like a green chalkboard and they're covered with drawings of cartoons, names, and anything a young or older mind could imagine).

VH1 was a little classier. We were able to get away with nicely fit jeans and t-shirts throughout the week, but mostly on Fridays. Fashion was in on our floor. The latest Burberry designs and Louie Vuitton handbags adorned secretaries, accountants, and producers alike. It was not all that unusual though to walk on any channel's floors and see an orange hair dyed cut t-shirt wearing twenty-something person who was a senior vice president in a department. The entire corporate life at MTV Networks from the lobby up to the TRL studio and throughout the many floors in the building screamed of individuality. I think that was one of the first things I loved about working there. The concept of being who you were while you worked and doing what you loved with no one passing judgment on you was refreshing to me. I knew for sure that when I entered the "real world" one day, I wanted to work here! The corporate life that was lived on the Viacom corporate floors above us was definitely a little more conservative and reserved compared to the wild and crazy work environment below it. Since Viacom owned all of MTV Network channels along with Paramount, Comedy Central, BET, over 20 other channels, and they had a merger with CBS, they were extremely professional all of the time.

Nevertheless, MTV Networks was the younger generation's corporate life. Anyone could see this based off the fact that the corporate finance floor looks like a scene right out of the Matrix where Sony Playstations and X-Boxes are hooked up to flat screen televisions placed in the pearly white walls. Another clue to the difference in corporate culture is that at internship orientation, everyone is seriously lectured to about not harassing in-house celebrities because they were working like the rest of us, and so were any celebrities that came through the building. While I knew that MTV VJ's like Carson Daly, Sway, Kurt Loder, and John Norris worked on the shows I had watched from behind a T.V. screen for ages as a teenager, I had not prepared myself for bumping into these people in the cafeteria or on the elevator, let alone running an errand for one of these people!

Just like the excitement of working in the same building as stars was almost too much to handle, even the usual intern grunt work was fascinating. On my first day, I had to dub tapes for Carson Daly's show and have them delivered. The very idea of handling tapes that Carson Daly would be holding was something I would have died over just a year ago, but the attitude at work was that he was simply another co-worker who just happened to have celebrity status. How much cooler could a work environment be? Another odd job was walking over to Entertainment Tonight's New York Office which is actually located in the 1633 building of Viacom and MTV Networks. As I waited one day to exchange some tapes for an Entertainment Tonight Producer, Bill Cabrall, I had the lucky opportunity to sit and wait in his office until the tapes arrived. As I sat looking around his office, my heart nearly stopped beating. He had told me that he had been in the business for over 10 years now, but I could clearly see this in the press passes he had attained throughout the years that were splattered all over his office like a distorted trophy showcase. You name it, he's been there. Everything from the Grammy's, Emmy's, Oscar's, MTV's Video Music Awards, backstage passes to exclusive events, and even passes to hot after parties thrown by big name celebrities like P. Diddy! It was moments like that, which made being "just" an intern even better. It's easy not to mind being a "lowly" intern when the errands I was given were dropping off tapes at CNN and Sony Music Studios.

Another perk to this job, is that despite all the cool celebrities and exclusive parties, music was at the center of our job, which made work so much fun to love. I remember once being sent an e-mail from our intern supervisors alerting us to the fact that MTV was scheduling an in-house performance for us by an upcoming hot group called O.A.R. (Of a Revolution). Just the mere idea of this being work, the idea of my job including music performances at work made me love MTV Networks even more. I soon came to discover that this was a normal perk of working here. I was constantly being invited to free performances, screening of Paramount movies before the public had seen them (because as you may remember, Viacom owns Paramount), meeting Monica at the CBS Early Show, and even going to MTV's Total Request Live (TRL) at the Beach House in the Hamptons!

On the day of O.A.R. performance, both employees and interns alike crowded together on the 24th floor after lunch and enjoyed a free performance up close with this amazing group. The group had done us a special favor by staying because they had even cancelled their David Letterman performance to hang with us. Since we were the people who would be one day producing, writing, and reporting about this group, they knew it was a good idea to hook us up with a free show. It was such an awesome experience to be surrounded by so many young people like me who could feel the vibe of the music pounding throughout our bodies, giving you that tingling sensation you always feel whenever you hear or see a great musical performance. And it's that feeling, that moment, that makes you remember why you're interning for MTV Networks. It makes you realize that the reason you want to one day work there is because you live for that moment, that feeling, it's what makes you tick. For others it's teaching, law, social work, or finding a cure for cancer. For us, it was all in the music that made us want to live through every moment in life like it could never end. That was the reason we worked for MTV Networks.

Even though this may sound like all fun and games with free concerts and hanging with celebrities that is far from the case. These amazing opportunities occurred sporadically throughout the internship and usually the best ones came toward the end, and many were just a matter of how soon you knew about it and how many other people wanted to go. I once remember snagging free WNBA pre-season tickets for my dad and brother only because I got an e-mail from some VH1 people a few seconds after they sent an e-mail out. Within a half hour, there were no tickets left. So despite the great chances to experience the good life as an intern, it's good to point out that many of my great experiences were based off of chance.

Despite all these great premiums, work is still work. Of course there were days where I skipped my one hour lunch break because I had five hours to accomplish over 50 phone calls, proofing of a three press breaks and a media alert, as well as 100 contacts media list. One of the most hectic times of my internship was when we had a big show to promote. The bigger the show, the bigger and better the press kits. Press kits can be so simple and cute. However, when you work in VH1 Press under Viacom, one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, a press kit is so much more than a press kit. Custom video cases must be ordered, thousands upon thousands of copies must be made of letters to pop culture editors, fact sheets, and someone has to type this all as well as put together the photo disc that accompanies this mammoth press kit in its custom made fancy folders. And when it's Tuesday, and 500 of these press kits were supposed to be in the hands of 500 writers, reporters, and critics on Monday, you can't even begin to imagine the mayhem, chaos, and stress involved in a work day where these 500 press kits need to be sent out via air borne and New York messenger delivery. While it's a nice idea to imagine that there is some big office supply heaven like Kinko's that puts together video cases, copies all the paperwork, and maybe even stuffs all of this into envelopes after making cute little personalized mailing labels, it is far from the truth. This is where being an intern can get serious. It's not the same urgency you have when working at a local radio station as I did and stressing a little because the news director may not like the story you wrote that they don't even have to use. It's a whole other level. Now you're talking about deadlines that if missed cost hundreds of thousands of dollars let alone your reputation as a future employee. This is where the responsibility involved with being an intern rises a notch because if you falter, serious repercussions that affect your supervisor now directly involve you.

As far as writing was concerned, my best opportunity came one day when our vice president, Tracy, walked over to the intern section and asked, "Who here can write well?" At the very thought of writing, my arm leaped up in excitement before I could let any self-doubt jeopardize my chances. Satisfied with my enthusiasm, Tracy brought me into her office and explained that VH1 would be exclusively premiering The Eagles "Hole in the World" music video tomorrow - their first video in over a decade! She needed a press release talking about the premiere, their summer tour, and a brief synopsis/history of the band as well. My heart was pounding as she gave me the assignment. I knew it was my chance to shine, but I was terrified I just wouldn't be any good. I almost felt like my confidence of whether or not my passion was correctly directed in life seemed to hinge on that moment (well to me anyway). Tracy put a lot of emphasis on the headline being catchy and fun, something amazing. This of course brought some pressure on my creative talents, but I concentrated as best I could and tried not to psyche myself out. The good thing about writing for a career is that it calms me to write, I love it a lot, and even though it is work, I enjoy doing it. Not only was my entire release sent out and used, but Tracy and Brett, our Director of Corporate Communications, liked it! Tracy said I did a great job, and seemed very thankful. It was definitely a high point in my internship.

Even on a not so stressful deadline pushed day, working as an intern has great duty in its name. When making phone calls to any newspaper, television station, or entertainment company, as a PR person, part of your job is how well your relationships with others outside your company are maintained. I can still remember such a simple assignment I had that was such a big deal in retrospect. One of our publicists, Michelle, had asked me to handle an easy task for her. Singer, songwriter, and producer, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds had has people call VH1 to find a taped episode of a show that he and his lovely wife Tracy Edmonds had co-hosted together many a year ago because they wanted to have it for their personal video watching. I spent days hunting down producers and hassling the MTV Library personnel to find a copy of this lost episode. I did however; call to update the contact person for this task on a daily basis. His name was Julian and I didn't know much about him other than the fact that he worked directly with Babyface and his wife. Once I finally hunted down the tape, there was yet another hurdle to jump. It was in a strange DS format and was only a rough-cut version of the show. After finding another final cut version of the show, I still had to have the MTV Electronic Resources or ER as it is jokingly called, convert the tape to VHS format to send over to Los Angeles for Babyface and his wife. When I had finally complete the task, I made a final phone call to Julian in Los Angeles to alert him to the arrival of his package. As we made casual conversation seeing that we had spent many days talking on the phone, I asked what his position with Edmonds Entertainment (Babyface's and Tracy's entertainment company which covers music, film, and television) was, assuming he was merely a personal assistant or maybe even an intern like me. I assumed very wrongly. Julian was the Director of Creative Affairs for Edmonds Entertainment! This is a clear cut example of how maintaining a good relationship with anyone you may deal with in PR can be a good or bad thing for you, especially as an intern. Fate was in my favor, because Julian had been so impressed with how well I handled this annoyingly delicate task for Babyface and his wife, that he called VH1's Director of Corporate Communications, Brett, and sang my praises to him. I, having no knowledge of this, received a congratulatory e-mail that day from Brett which was also copied to publicists, senior publicists, and our vice president in VH1 Press, thanking me for doing such a great job with this because there were big corporate deals going on between VH1 and Edmonds Entertainment, so something as trivial as this might have been, really was quite a big deal because my tape task had made Babyface and his wife extremely happy. What pressure for being only an intern, right? As I said before, work was still work and pressure was always involved on a daily basis despite the fun perks I received from working at MTV Networks.

Still, many may question how valuable an internship could be with all these great freebies being thrown around. I did love the work environment, but realize that my eight hour work day four times a week which I was not paid for (MTV Network interns can only receive college credit, they do NOT pay) had many attachments to it. Due to how late in the year I had discovered my internship possibility, plus the fact that I never in a million years would have imagined that me, an 18 year old girl originally from Pittsburgh who had only spent one year at Penn State would be able to snag a New York City internship with MTV Networks. Since my family had recently moved to King of Prussia outside of Philadelphia, I was planning on trying to get an internship with a radio or T.V. station, if I was lucky. So I had not saved the necessary $2,000-$3,000 dollars that needed to be paid upfront to stay in a New York City college dorm room for the summer. I had no family or friends in the city either, so there were two possibilities for my situation: Not take the internship (yea right!) or deal with a two hour commute. Again, being the crazy over achieving dork that I am, I was willing to accept this minor disadvantage to working at MTV Networks.

Most people I have spoken with before the summer began thought I was insane for trying to do a two hour commute up to and then a two hour commute back from New York four times a week for the entire summer. I simply felt that this was my dream and I was being given the opportunity of my lifetime, so I was willing to work hard for it. I figured, every great person who has made it somewhere in life has struggled, and besides, I'm a poor college student, I'm supposed to struggle a little anyway. I had no problem paying my dues in life to get somewhere great, so this was my chance. However, let me just say briefly that after this summer, I will NEVER take the New Jersey Transit system ever again unless by force.

My commute was an interesting one. Interesting probably isn't the best word; perhaps exceptionally uncommon is a better phrasing of words. To start, I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning (this changed to 6:00 as the summer dragged on, and by the end of the summer I was running out of the door after a 6:50 wake-up, I was beat, and you'll see why in a minute) and after an early wake-up in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, I would drive to Trenton, New Jersey. This was supposed to be an hour drive, but with my extremely cautious speeding, it was only 45 minutes. Then, I would take the train from Trenton to Penn Station in New York City which was supposed to be a one hour and fifteen minute trip. However, due to extenuating circumstances this summer, that almost never happened. Continuing though, I would start my eight hour work day at 10:00 sharp (however, I usually came in early) and end my day around 6:00 p.m. As summer progressed, I would sometimes not end until 6:30 or later because being the insane worker bee that I am, I like to get my work done, and I don't like to disappoint who I work for. At the close of my day, I would take a train from Penn Station somewhere within the hour of 6:00-7:00, arrive in Trenton around 8:00 or later. I then would drive back to King of Prussia, and after gassing the car back up, I would usually arrive home around 9:00, but sometimes later if my work day didn't end at 6:00. This might seem bad, but the worse part of it, was that as soon as I arrived home, I only had so much time to eat dinner (which was many a time skipped due to my exhaustion because food was less appealing than sleep), shower, and maybe speak to my family for ten minutes at most. While most of my other intern friends could spend hours winding down after work, I only had a few minutes to "chill", because by the time I would finish my dinner and anything else, it would be almost 11:00 or later at night. With a 5:30 wake-up call, free time became an illusion I never had control of. And this would continue day after day until Friday rolled around. Luckily, on Friday's, MTV Networks had summer hours and we would get out at 1:30 which sounds great, right? Well, figuring that it's the end of the week, and it's not rush hour on my train commuting, the train ride would extend to two hours, and by the time I would arrive in Trenton, there was now rush hour and beach traffic for vacationers that I would have to battle, making my 6:00 arrival at home not that impressive considering I had left work over four hours ago.

For those who have had crazy commutes between three different states each day, this may not seem exceptionally uncommon, but there is a catch to this already twisted tale. The New Jersey Transit. That train ride became the abominable beast that attempted to destroy me throughout the summer. It all started one warm July day on my way to New York. That morning was unlike any other. As I arrived in Trenton, I immediately noticed the exorbitant amount of people lulling around in the train station. Even with tourists, it was packed. As I bought my train ticket, the attendant only charged me for an off-peak (or non-rush hour) ticket. Demanding to know why she had given me the incorrect ticket, she simply said, "You'll be lucky if the 8:00 train gets here at 8:00 let alone during rush hour." Confused by her explanation, I wandered over to the waiting area and checked the boards. To my surprise and shock, every train on the entire board was delayed indefinitely. I immediately called work and left a message to alert my supervisor that I may experience delays with getting in today. My 8:00 train did arrive. It arrived at 8:50. A little frustrated with this unusual delay, because up to this point, New Jersey transit had never done me any disservice with arriving on time, I settled in to my seat and updated my message at work. Having fallen asleep on the train as I usually do to catch up on missed sleep at night, I awoke with the sun in my face and the awareness creeping over me that the train was stopped. I shot up and questioned the lady sitting next to me who was infuriated with whatever was going on and kept calling people on her cell phone every five minutes. She abruptly informed me that we had been stopped outside of New Brunswick, about an hour away in train time from New York. When I asked why she simply made another telephone call. My unanswered questions were soon answered by a train conductor's voice over an intercom announcing that there had been an accident on the track and that as soon as he knew more information, he would update us. He also apologized for any inconvenience or delay that New Jersey Transit may have caused us. As I yawned, trying to still wake my from my deep train ride nap, I opened my cell phone to call my supervisor when in shock, I saw that the time was now 11:00! Not only was I over an hour late for work, more than hour away from New York, but I was stranded on tracks in the middle of nowhere in a stuffy train with crowded and angry New York commuters. Thank heavens my supervisor was completely understandable, and reminding my paranoid delusional self that I was an intern, so I was not held to the same responsibility as an employee who was being paid to be there on time. At that point in life, I knew I was the luckiest intern alive to have such a considerate supervisor.

As time passed, our train did not. People were beginning to get irritated, smokers were beginning to disobey the non-smoking rule on the train, and train conductors were beginning to get annoyed with the ranting passenger's daunting whining. All of a sudden, the train began to move, and as the train conductor announced over the intercom that there had been a fatality on the tracks, passengers began to make a buzz of questioning and gossip while I leaned my head against the cool glass window trying not to stress myself out. The window. The one day that summer I had chosen to take the window seat. This just was not my day. I can still remember how quickly everything happened. As the train moved along slowly, people began to run over to my side of the train pushing and shoving while screaming with disgust and horror. My wide awake self was now looking face to face with a dead, bloody, and dismembered body on the tracks below us as emergency crews hurriedly made a last minute attempt to cover up their unfinished work. The train conductor's cautioning statement about not looking toward the right side of the train tracks came just a tad too late minutes later.

Arriving in New York around 12:30 that day, I was needless to say, just a bit frazzled. Everyone at work treated me quite gingerly asking every five minutes if I needed to go home, but quite honestly, I was more than willing to stay on land for as long as I possibly could considering what I had seen earlier. Apparently, an Amtrak train had hit a person that morning that was either pushed or had willingly jumped onto the train tracks. This was the unspoken of explanation that morning as to why all the trains were delayed. It had taken time to investigate the crime scene and as my train had unfortunately seen, to dispose of the remains of the poor soul who had been the victim. Taking the train back that night was not any easier considering the delays from the morning along with the closing of the New Brunswick train stop for police investigation had caused even further delays that evening. My arrival in Trenton around 9:00 gave me a late 10:00 arrival back home in King of Prussia that night which was not the best time of night to eat dinner, shower, and attempt to get some sleep for the next big day of commuting.

I would like to say that this was the one random experience that I had this summer with commuting, but sadly, that would be a lie. Though I will not go through all the gory and frustrating details of each experience, I will let it be known that there was a train derailment where 12 people were hospitalized as well as a power outage between Philadelphia and New York which caused me to travel to the seedy New York Port Authority station where scruffy men with knives stood on corners making night time deals with other scruffy men, while I stood in a two hour line at a bus station with over 400 gates and five levels of mayhem and hysteria of panicked New Jersey Transit passengers trying to get home, only to arrive in the middle of Princeton, New Jersey at 11:00 at night which I've never even been to, attempt to find a train station on my own, and have my weary and worry faced parents pick my up at the Trenton train station at 12:00 that night after a day that had begun for me at 5:30 am.
I think it's fair to say that my dues had more than been paid this past summer in my heroic and sometimes idiotic attempts to get to work each day. This is why a few free music performances, concert tickets, and celebrity sightings seemed more than deserved in my mind throughout the summer not to mention the minor detail of having no paycheck all summer.

With school beginning in a few weeks, I have come to realize that the valuable lessons I learned this past summer, the amazing opportunities I was presented with, and the unforgettable adventures I attempted to triumph through, all have made me a stronger, wiser, and very happy person. I could not have planned a better summer than this. I got the chance to spend a big chunk of my summer writing, learning about entertainment PR first-hand, meet some great people who I've gained priceless advice and experience from, worked in the city of New York which I have officially come to love for all it's crazy chaos, and have come to realized that I can handle a lot more than most people thought I could, and even more than I thought I could. Any new challenges I will face in my life will never compare to this summer. If I ever think I can't tackle a tough class, handle all the surmounting leadership positions I've soaked up this past year, or land a great job someday, I'll have this summer to look back to and I'll know I can conquer it by knowing that any good dream takes lots of hard work to achieve, but it's so incredibly worth it in the end. How many people can say they spent their first summer after freshman year of college working at MTV Networks?

So what's in store for this intern in the future? I have come to the conclusion, that without a doubt, entertainment PR is where my heart is, and I will devote every summer until I graduate to my dream of one day working for MTV Networks as a publicist. And I will not "waste" my summers in the corporate world so I can spice up resume or look good for an employer some day. Even though this is my career, I love what I do - it excites me. I want to spend as much time as I can living in this moment of excitement. I can understand why some people don't look forward to graduation, or the "real world", but I've made the most of every moment of life so far, and if doing what I loves to do brings me an internship with MTV like it did this summer, I will venture to say that that's not too bad. So in the summer of 2004, I'm going to attempt to intern with Paramount Pictures, BET, or MTV Press, though I do hope to stay in New York next summer. I've earned my keep with the commuting gods, and I think I owe it to myself to live in the city where I hope to one day work. That alone should account for even more exciting tales next summer. Until then, I still have three more years of college to finish! So it's back to Nittany Lion football games, hanging with my friends, being a student leader, and yes, even taking classes. Now I'll have to see if my school year has any adventures in store for me. Without New Jersey transit though, I admit I have my doubts. But we'll see. We'll see.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009