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OPINION: What I learned from my internship with Ken Burns

Hi. My name is Augusta Smith, and this summer I was an intern for Ken Burns’ film company, Florentine Films.

So, I got it. I got the amazing, coveted internship that the young, plucky college student protagonist goes for and either gets or doesn’t, but learns a lesson from — depending on the film.

The tamest way I could describe my emotions would be a clusterfrick of pride and anxiety. On one hand, I felt like a boss. I had gotten an internship with an Emmy award-winning company and was the only one in the entire school to get in. People were reaching out to me, congratulating me — even doing small articles on me. On the other hand, I was thoroughly convinced that it was all a mistake. A clerical error.

This was the internship for film savants, for go-getters who started film companies out of their dorm rooms, for students who already had a film they’d worked on, released and made decent profit on. I wasn’t even technically a film major. The most important job I had was another internship at my local TV station, which had a total of two employees.

Now Belmont and my hometown paper were writing articles about me.

Rationality eventually took over and reminded me that my name isn’t exactly common among my generation — there are apparently only 16,000 Augusta’s in the United States — and if they did somehow make a mistake, they would have caught it pretty early, since I emailed them back immediately thanking them for it. And that was in February.

So, I went about my business, finished the semester, said polite thank yous to anyone who congratulated me and made the 20-something-hour road trip to Walpole, New Hampshire.

When I first got to Walpole, the first thing I noticed was a lack of neon signs. The only thing for miles seemed to be houses, farms and small businesses. Now, when people warned me it was a small town, I shrugged it off. I grew up in small town; I was used to not having everything within a set radius or much to do on weekends. But after seeing Walpole, I will never call my town small again. Congratulations, Fort Payne, Alabama,  you’re medium sized now.

Once I got over the fact that the nearest Wendy’s was a 30-minute drive, I liked living in Walpole. It was like one of those towns you take out of a ‘50s TV show — everyone seemed to know everybody, they had little festivals, people rode bikes to work and a few of the surrounding business would only take cash. I liked walking to work and I liked how I always knew what was going on in the town. However, I did feel like I was the only person my age for miles, but that’s where the other interns came in.

There was Leah, who had a very no-nonsense attitude and who coached kids’ softball. Carlos, who was addicted to the local coffee shop’s lattes and had a passion for mixing old soundtracks up to create something new. And there was Quinn, who is the sweetest girl on Earth and an accomplished horseback rider. She also had me over for dinner, so I could have my first hot meal in a month.

Our first week in, we got together for coffee and just talked about everything. We had a certain camaraderie that I hope we can still carry on to this day. We were the Florentine interns. We were all new and a bit nervous, but we were all new and a bit nervous together.

Now, to be on the safe side, I’m not going to talk about the kind of stuff I did at my internship. That way we can all be surprised by Ken Burns’ latest documentaries, The Vietnam War and Country Music. But what I can tell you are some of the valuable things I learned from my time with Florentine.

Honestly, the only thing you need to know going into an internship is how to be a good employee. Just be respectful, punctual and willing to do all that is asked of you.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone — at least everyone at Florentine — is incredibly friendly and are all very willing to answer whatever questions you might have.

At some point, your opinion may be asked for, and you should give it honestly. Just don’t go interjecting it into everything. It’s rude in professional and social situations.

You are low on the totem pole. That’s fine, everyone is at some point.

In regards to housing, I learned something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life: Always ask about heating and air conditioning!

I didn’t know that a lot of people up in New Hampshire don’t have either of those. Being from the south, where everyone seems to have it, I didn’t know to expect something like that. When I was in England last summer, they didn’t have air-conditioning in the dorm rooms, so I wrote it off as an English thing. So, if you’re getting housing for your internship, make sure to ask before you agree to rent, and make plans accordingly.

It’s okay to be nervous, just practice not showing it. One time Ken Burns asked me to give my opinion on something, and I did honestly. After he dismissed me with a polite thank you, I headed for the nearest restroom and hurled up the protein bar I had eaten for breakfast. The important thing is that I didn’t throw up on Ken Burns. That would have been way worse. He’s a very nice man, so I don’t think he would have fired me — maybe just stayed out of up-chuck radius. Fortunately, I held it in until the time was appropriate.

Speaking of Mr. Burns, I learned that a good boss will always make sure that everyone on the team feels appreciated — from your star editor to your newest intern. Ken Burns did a marvelous job at making all of us feel proud to be part of the Florentine family.

Finally, to the next intern who gets this incredible opportunity: You’re going to have fun. Everyone is nice, you’ll make friends and you’ll get to nerd out with people about movies

The hardest part is getting in, getting up here, and finally, getting ready to leave once it’s all over.

Article and photo from Augusta Smith

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