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Virtual interns become reality

Monday, April 5, 2010

Paul Furiga seldom can pinpoint the workday whereabouts of his newest employee, Miles Ritenour, but he doesn't mind.

"Miles might be at school, or at his apartment, or with his family," said Furiga, president and chief executive officer of the Cranberry-based WordWrite Communications LLC.

Such touch-and-go interplay comes with the job Ritenour took in January as WordWrite's first virtual intern, a position that allows the Point Park University senior to do most of his work outside the office.

More companies have started seeking out students for virtual internships largely because of the technological marriage of Internet-based communications tools and Generation Y's familiarity with them.

"It's nice for me, not having to drive to work every day," said Ritenour, 22, a 2006 Greater Latrobe High School graduate whose major is advertising and public relations. "Some mornings I just put a robe over my pajamas and get to work."

Three days a week, Ritenour provides research and planning advice to WordWrite clients by scouring social media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn on his laptop computer.

Furiga communicates with Ritenour by telephone or via e-mail and instant messaging. He reports to WordWrite's office only once a week.

"If a company thinks it fits its culture, and the student is able to successfully work outside an office setting, it can work on both ends," Regina Anderson, director of the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern PA, said of virtual internships

Point Park senior Gloria Franciscus likely will never see the Sarasota. Fla.-based headquarters of, a online matching site for service providers, though she's been interning with the company since January.

"I update the company's Facebook and Twitter pages in between classes, and I generally work three hours each day," said Franciscus, 22, a journalism/mass communications major.

The Coffee Bean Cafe in Unity is the usual workplace for St. Vincent College student Dominic Malfara. Since last spring, Malfara has been a virtual intern for Marketing Matrix, a collegiate chapter of the American Marketing Association.

"I can hardly keep still for more than an hour. I think our entire generation has that problem, so I feel like technology has evolved to accommodate that," said Malfara, 22, a senior business marketing major.

Virtual internships permit students like St. Vincent's Elizabeth De Lyser to gain valuable professional experience from a distance when college courses require her to be on campus.

"It's so convenient to do the work when I can on the computer, and it's so much easier than driving back and forth," said De Lyser, 20, a sophomore English major who is working for TowerMetriX, a hi-tech Internet startup company in Cranberry that creates innovative business and health care-related software.

Despite the success stories, the value of virtual internship depends largely on the student, said Jan Getz, Point Park University's internship coordinator.

"It requires both discipline and time management skills," said Getz, adding that Point Park students are required to fulfill 200 intern hours in a semester for a three-credit internship course. "Anytime you remove a layer of personal interaction, you remove a layer of teachability for the intern, so candidates must be strong in those areas."

Ted Ehrlich, who founded with his son, Brian, said virtual internships serve as valid preparation for students' future employment opportunities.

"The world they have in front of them has become so much more virtual in the way business is done," Ehrlich said. "When they graduate, some, if not all of their work, will be done virtually."

The value of gaining internship experience in an office setting still is important, said Courtney Baum, director of the St. Vincent College Career Center.

"I don't think I'd want to see everybody working from home," Baum said. "Working in a professional setting is what gives students that dose of reality on how a real-world office is run."



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