WATERVILLE — For college students, internships are now more critical than ever before, according to Mike Duguay, executive director of the Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation at Thomas College.

To ensure greater access to those opportunities, roughly 20 percent of a multi-million dollar grant the college received in May will go toward providing paid internships at small- to medium-sized businesses for students.

“We’re creating not just an internship program per se, but also a talent pipeline for the central Maine workforce,” Duguay said.

On May 10, the Harold Alfond Foundation announced a $5.3 million grant to create a business institute at Thomas College that will tackle a number of initiatives, including professional development training and a paid internship program.

The program hopes to provide 50 paid internships each year. While it’s still in its infancy, it has already helped some students and smaller organizations, such as Waterville Creates!

Victoria Cushing, 20, of New Sharon, has been working for the culture- and arts-focused nonprofit this summer as a marketing intern.

As an incoming senior studying marketing management at Thomas College, getting hands-on experience in her field is important, she said.

“I’ve gotten tons of experience doing different things, not just focusing on one area,” Cushing said. She has helped with projects associated with the Maine International Film Festival, written press releases and managed social media accounts among other things.

“I think internships are extremely important,” she said, not only because of the experience a student gets, but also because of the networking opportunities it creates.

Cushing has been able to network with other organizations and businesses during her 15 weeks at Waterville Creates! By the end of the summer, she will have worked 450 hours, 300 of which will be paid. Her total hours will give her nine academic class credits, which is helping her graduate early in December.

Since 2012, the college has nearly doubled the number of students participating in internships, both paid and unpaid, from 70 to 138, according to data from Mikaela Ziobro, director of strategic initiatives. The school hopes to get 150 students participating in internships in 2017.

Duguay said the hope is to get students involved with internships earlier in their academic careers. The institute plans to work “intensely” with students on career development and provide opportunities for job shadowing so they can be ready to intern at the end of their sophomore years.

“From personal experience, I think it’s so important to get a student involved in what they will ultimately be doing professionally,” he said. “I think it makes schooling that much more enriching.”

It also lets students decide if the path they’re on is right for them.

“The last thing someone wants is for a student to wait and find out they don’t want to do what they’re studying,” Duguay said, adding that that happened to him in college.

After Cushing’s experience at Waterville Creates!, which was her first internship, she knows that work is “definitely the kind of thing I want to do.”

Emily Dufour, 21, of Waterville, is planning to intern at the Institute for Family Owned Business after working at Waterville Creates! this past spring.

Dufour is also an incoming senior studying marketing management, but she chose Waterville Creates! for its nonprofit status.

“I’ve just always wanted to work with nonprofits, even when I didn’t know what I wanted to major in,” Dufour said.

The experience she gained in the spring helped her secure the fall internship, which is based in Portland.

“The network that I’ve created is very helpful,” she said.

Dufour was a “guinea pig” for the institute’s program, she said, and while she was excited to get paid, it wasn’t a deal breaker for her.

Cushing also said that money wasn’t a deal breaker, but she knows it could be for some.

“I think it’s great that the institute is helping with paid internships,” she said. “In today’s world it is a big factor because so many people try to pay for school on their own.”

According to Duguay, the institute is providing financial assistance to help both the student and the businesses.

Smaller businesses can often offer a better experience to students, he said, giving them larger responsibility and more hands-on work. But they are often the ones who struggle to pay an extra person the most, even if they need the help.

“Because they offer such an interesting work opportunity … you’d really want to place the student there,” he said.

Nate Towne, marketing manager for Waterville Creates!, said the organization couldn’t do the work it does without its interns.

“They allow us to work with more collaborative partners, take on more projects and get more work done,” Towne said.

This summer, the nonprofit has four interns, in part because of the grant but also because of an influx of students volunteering their time. Waterville Creates! has had an internship program since its inception in 2014, but only began paying Thomas College interns this past spring with the grant. In the past, they received college credit.

Duguay said the money will also help students who need paid work, but still need professional experience.

“If there’s a student who really does need to work simply because of their situation, our thought is: Wouldn’t it be much better if that student was doing something for their career, versus taking something that’s paid but doesn’t develop them professionally?” he said.

The institute is now working to identify employers who would like to hire interns through the college and work with the program, he said.

Duguay also hopes that giving students local opportunities will keep them in central Maine longer, where that talent is needed.

“If we can get a student involved in a local business much earlier, students will get more interested in the local economy and be less apt to leave upon graduation,” he said. “Our hope is that this will connect them with the central Maine business community. It’s really difficult for many businesses to find that talent.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

mstamour@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @madelinestamour