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Lessons learned from an undergraduate criminal justice internship: The student experience

Published onDec 10, 2023
Lessons learned from an undergraduate criminal justice internship: The student experience


Internships play a crucial role in the educational and professional training of students. This article presents a qualitative evaluation of the benefits and challenges of an undergraduate internship through an examination of self-reflective journals completed by 20 seniors majoring in criminal justice. Findings were organized into five major themes: knowledge acquisition, professional development, personal development, affective development, and awareness of the realities of the criminal justice system. The most frequently cited benefits included increased learning, the ability to apply coursework to the internship experience, and improved career readiness. Challenges included exposure to field experiences that led to feeling sad and nervous during the internship. The findings offer valuable insights for designing effective internship programs for criminal justice education.

Keywords: Criminal justice internships, criminal justice careers, experiential learning, field experience

Internships for students interested in criminal justice began on college campuses in 1968 when the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) paid full-time students a stipend to serve in law enforcement for at least eight weeks. The program's goal was to provide students with hands-on experience in the field as part of their college curriculum to train future criminal justice professionals. The LEAA program ended in 1980; however, internships have continued to be part of criminal justice curricula (Gordon & McBride, 2011).

According to the Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), internships are “hands-on” learning experiences offered as formal courses typically taken for credit. These internships can occur at the local, state, federal or international levels.  Students can participate at an agency or organization, including homeland security, police departments, law firms and the courts, under the supervision of a field advisor from the internship site and a faculty advisor. Students’ responsibilities include participating in daily agency tasks. The internship can be part- or full-time.  Most programs (82%) limit internships to students in their junior or senior year of college (Stichman & Farkas, 2005). Internships also assist students with making career choices that are consistent with their interests and abilities (McBride, 2016). No reliable data exists on the percentage of criminal justice internships that pay or offer a stipend (Jones & Seltzer, 2005). However, Johnson and Snyder (2020) state that most criminology and criminal justice-related agencies are unpaid.

Internships play a crucial role in the educational and professional training of students by providing supervised discipline and career-related experiences that involve active learning, critical reflection, and professional development (Cambre & Lowe, 2018; Ligon & Ward, 2019; O'Neil, 2010; Rosenthal, 2020). Internships traditionally require student interns to integrate "real-world" experiences with academic content and use this knowledge to make informed decisions about their career paths. The majority of undergraduate criminal justice programs offer internships as part of the course curriculum (Murphy & Gibbons, 2017; Stichman & Farkas, 2005). The positive impact of internship participation has been documented (George et al., 2015; Hiller, Salvadore & Taniguchi, 2013; Johnson & Snyder, 2020; Ross & Elechi, 2002; Stichman & Farkas, 2005); however, most studies used a survey approach with limited qualitative data. Few studies have examined the student perspective on the impact of criminal justice internships on their knowledge learned and skill development using an in-depth qualitative approach. This paper describes the student experience learned from an assessment of an internship in an undergraduate criminal justice program at a metropolitan university.

Benefits of Internships for Criminal Justice Undergraduate Students

Research has shown that according to self-reports, criminal justice students acquire knowledge through the internship experience by applying coursework to real-life experience (George et al., 2015; Johnson & Snyder, 2020; Murphy and Gibbons, 2014) and by improving their understanding of the justice system (Ross & Elechi, 2000). Studies assessing the benefits of criminal justice internships point to increased career preparedness (Murphy & Gibbons, 2017), improved "vocational self-concept" (Stone & McLaren, 1999, p. 172), eased school-to-work transition (Johnson & Synder, 2020; Stichman & Farkas, 2005; Stone & McLaren, 1999) and opportunities for networking with professionals who can serve as mentors and provide references (Murphy & Gibbons, 2017). Criminal justice internships also impact personal development including strengthening interpersonal skills (Gabris & Mitchell, 1992; Johnson and Snyder, 2020) through interactions with victims, witnesses, clients, and professionals (Stichman & Farkas, 2005), increased clarity and confidence, and reduced anxiety among students after the internship compared to before (Neapolitan, 1992), improved communication skills and enabling students to relate better to individuals from diverse backgrounds who experience different circumstances (Johnson & Snyder, 2020; Stichman & Farkas, 2005).

Research points to changes in student attitudes toward criminals and the criminal justice system because of the internship experience as noted by Murphy and Gibbons (2017). For instance, criminal justice internships led students to feel more compassion toward practitioners and less toward offenders (Fichter,1987; George et al., 2015). Also, students who participated in law enforcement internships demonstrated increased authoritarian attitudes and adherence to dogma, which were characteristics of the officers at the internship agency (Murphy & Gibbons, 2017).

Description of the Internship Program

Given the findings above, this qualitative study examined the benefits of a required senior-year field internship in criminal justice. This internship program is a required six-credit course for all criminal justice majors. Prior to the internship, students are required to successfully complete the Pre-Internship course during their junior year. In the Pre-internship course, students learn about different career opportunities and obtain the skills necessary for post-baccalaureate career endeavors in this profession. In collaboration with the University’s career services department, Pre-internship students also prepare their resume and cover letter, practice interviewing skills, and learn from criminal justice professionals who are guest speakers. The internship coordinator, a criminal justice faculty member, teaches the course and requires individual meetings with the students to help them identify and secure an internship that reflects their unique interests and career goals.

The internship requires that students complete 200 hours at an approved criminal justice-related agency. Examples of placements include law enforcement (local, state, and federal), district attorney’s office, private investigation, public defender’s office, juvenile court, juvenile detention, probation and parole, local jail or state correctional institutions, domestic abuse agencies, and victim services. Learning expectations vary by internship and are determined by the internship site supervisor and student. Students are required to write a 20-page academic paper integrating coursework with field experiences and to maintain a journal during the internship experience.

To further increase the quality of internships, the internship coordinator reviews the goals and objectives of every internship application as prepared by the agency supervisor to ensure the internship will provide a quality learning opportunity. Internship applications have been rejected if there are too many non-criminal justice-related tasks, such as filing and answering the phones. The research concludes that occasionally students’ internships are based on trivial tasks (Murphy & Gibbons, 2017).


Sample and Setting

The university where the study took place is in a low-resourced, high-crime, northeastern urban metropolitan community. Twenty students were randomly selected from a larger sample of 55 criminal justice students who completed the internship from the spring of 2021 through the spring of 2023 (See Table 1 for sample characteristics). Our goal was to include a random sample that reflected a diversity of internship sites. Therefore, we set a criterion to include at most two students from the same internship site. Because the county’s District Attorney’s office is a popular internship site, we excluded two students because we had already included two participants from this site. We also excluded one student because the journal was incomplete. Per the Internship course requirements all students were criminal justice majors and seniors. Most students self-identified as White (N=17), while the remaining were Black (N=2) and Hispanic (N=1). Eleven students identified as female and nine as male. The mean age was 22 years old.

Table 1: Sample Characteristics




Internship site




Investigation Division of the District Attorney’s Office




Private Defense Attorney




District Attorney’s Office




Non-profit social service agency




District Attorney’s Office




Private security



African American

Reentry organization




Juvenile Detention




Sheriff’s Office




Victim services




Public Defender’s office




Suburban Police Department




Federal Probation/Parole




City Police Department




Nonprofit with justice involved youth




Campus safety



African American

Private defense attorney








Organization that trains police dogs





Data Collection

The University's Institutional Review Board approved all study procedures. Students provided informed consent to participate in this study as part of a larger study, including pre- and post-quantitative surveys. The journals served as the main source of data along with a short self-report survey of demographics. Journaling has traditionally been used as a reflective writing activity to assess student learning and has been shown to foster experiential learning (Arter, Wallace, & Shaffer, 2016). These insights provide a valuable learning process for the student and an assessment tool for instructors. For the journal, students included a brief description of their daily activities and reflections. Students had leeway to choose their own reflections, but were given sample questions should they wish to respond to them in their journals: “What was most thought-provoking learning point about your day? Did any part of what you learned challenge any of your previously held beliefs?” However, students were required to answer the following journal questions at the end of the course: “In what ways, if any, did your internship contribute to your self-esteem or confidence, leadership skills, your ability for teamwork or cooperation, your communication skills (written, verbal, and listening), traits such as patience, empathy, and time management, or anything else? Describe how your internship did or did not assist your career planning and development. Describe your goals and whether they have changed since your internship.”

Data Analysis

We chose the case study research design to permit an in-depth analysis of our course within the context of real life (Yin, 2017), and we employed the technique of pattern matching (Yin, 2017). For example, for the first code, career preparedness, a match was made for students who reported examples of career readiness as a consequence of the internship. We first matched the students’ responses against themes identified by Murphy and Gibbons (2017) including 1) knowledge acquisition and 2) personal and 3) professional development. For example, knowledge acquisition as noted by Murphy and Gibbons (2017) included three codes: students expanded their knowledge, applied coursework to learning at the internship, and viewed the internship as a valuable experience. After matching the students’ responses to each of these three codes, we included additional codes that emerged from the data using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 2009). We used this same process of data analysis for personal and professional development identified by Murphy and Gibbons. See Table 2 for all themes and codes.

Two undergraduate research assistants independently coded all journals and reconciled differences through discussions with each other and then with the lead authors of the study. The lead authors met for one hour per week for two months to train the assistants on qualitative data analysis with an emphasis on learning how to generate codes, categories, and themes. The research assistants were assigned readings (e.g., Braun & Clark, 2006) and videos to assist with the data analysis learning process. Training also focused on practicing the coding process to ensure consistency in interpreting the journal information. The research assistants were also required to maintain a log with thoughts and questions related to coding the data which were then resolved during meetings with the lead authors. We stopped data collection at a sample of 20 when saturation was reached.


To assess how the internship contributed to student development, we used the work of Murphy and Gibbons (2017) to initially guide the data analysis. They identified three themes, including knowledge acquisition and professional and personal development, that we used to code the data. We then expanded their framework using inductive analysis to organize additional categories that emerged from the data. We organized the themes that emerged from the data into five dimensions that contributed to student development. These include 1) knowledge acquisition, 2) professional, 3) personal, 4) affective development, and 5) awareness of how the criminal justice system works, which are described below and summarized in Table 2.

Table 2: Framework for Analysis




Knowledge Acquisition

Expanded knowledge *


Applied coursework to learning at the internship *


Viewed internship as valuable educational experience *


Professional Development

Improved career readiness *


Impacted career goals positively **


Provided students with networking opportunities *


Provided students with opportunities to receive mentorship **


Reported learning/enjoying being part of a team **


Skill Development

Reported an increase in confidence/self-esteem **


Reported an increase in leadership skills **


Reported an increase in oral/written communication skills and listening skills**


Reported an increase in empathy **


Reported an increase in time management skills **


Reported improved patience **


Reported an increase in social/interpersonal skills **


Reported the opportunity to view situations in new ways **


Affective Development

Described the internship learning as interesting/enlightening**


Described the internship as enjoyable/fun/cool **


Described the internship as rewarding/making a difference**


Described feeling grateful for the internship opportunity **


Described feeling grateful for family and resources **


Easing the transition from school to work **


Described feeling bored at times **


Described feeling disappointed at times **


Described feeling underutilized at times**


Described feelings of nervousness at some point over the internship **


Described exposure to learning that was hard to swallow/sad **



Described the realities of the criminal justice system **


Described criticisms of the CJ system **


Described strengths of the CJ system **


Realized the realities of the workday **


*Category taken from Murphy and Gibbons (2017). **Category developed for the current study.

Knowledge Acquisition

Consistent with Murphy and Gibbon’s review of the research (2017), all the students described expanding their knowledge beyond the classroom during their internships. One student (#16) who interned at a police department located in an impoverished, high-crime community described:

I got a lot of experience witnessing the officers on calls, do traffic stops, pedestrian stops, arrests, and interrogations, and I got to participate at the gun range. I developed a greater understanding of how all the units work independently and together. This field gave me a glimpse of my future work in policing that the books explain. Instead of learning and reading about it, I actually got to do it.

All the students (N=20) applied criminological theories (i.e., strain, social control, and routine activities) to their field experience and reported on coursework, including concepts of social advocacy, evidence-based practices, and trauma-informed care learned in the classroom. One student (#5) shared:

Tender Years are motions filed with the court which allow for the indirect testimony of a child to be admitted to court in cases where it may be difficult for the child to express themselves on the stand. These are used when a child has undergone a horrific event. I think this is a good system as we learned in class how it can be a very painful experience for victims to recount what has happened to them on the stand.

All students (N=20) recognized the value of learning beyond the classroom as described by one student (#25) who interned with probation:

When taking a class, you know what you're getting yourself into and you learn exactly what is stated in the description of the class and rarely anything else. My internship was with probation, but I got to see the daily tasks of other jobs which I couldn’t do in the classroom setting. We can only learn so much in class about what it’s like for offenders to go through the system, but nothing can show us more than interacting with them firsthand. They all have back stories that we can only hear from them directly.

All the students (N=20) referred to their internships as a valuable part of their learning experiences using descriptions such as priceless and a blessing. One student referred to the internship as “one of the most amazing opportunities that I have ever had the chance to experience” (#15). The students valued opportunities for real-life experiences, including wearing a bulletproof vest, seeing a murder scene, observing a deceased body, and interacting with the offenders. The students attributed their knowledge acquisition to this real-life internship learning experience. One student (#24) who interned with a police dog training facility shared:

I gained so much through this internship, and I will value it for the rest of my life! It led me to many important connections. It boosted my confidence and gave me insight on how to be a great leader.

Professional Development

All students (N=20) reported improved career preparedness. All but one (#6) said their internship impacted their career goals in a positive way. One student who reported impacting career goals in a positive experience (#9) shared:

My goal for my career is to become a police officer then to become a detective My internship helped with meeting my goal by learning how detectives conduct investigation, assisting with organizing cases and matching evidence with each case and watch how a search warrant is conducted.

For some students, the internship experience confirmed their pre-existing interests and career goals through exposure to technological equipment, state laws, and the working environment. Other students reportedly changed their career goals after the internship. One student (#8) explained:

This internship has left a major impact on me. When I started my internship, my career goal was to work in the juvenile justice system. However, I am starting to change my mind because the internship opened my eyes to how hard it is to work with juveniles because of vicarious trauma and I just do not think it is the right job for me.

The one student (#6) who wrote that the internship did not contribute to their career goals in a positive way, explained that they never had an interest in security but accepted the internship because their original internship fell through.

Most students (N=15) described their internships as networking opportunities and meeting attorneys, law enforcement officers, and agency personnel, and learning about what the different players do. The students offered their appreciation for how important networking is. One student (#24) explained that they received a second internship with a police department because of connections made at the first internship.

Another common theme the students shared was the opportunity for mentorship as most students (N=13) described their agency supervisors as helpful, motivating, patient, caring, and providing solid advice. One student described the supervisor as “unhelpful” (#6), and one student (#20) described frustration with their two supervisors who “like things done in two different ways. “I am learning from them and doing what I think is right, but it may not be.”

Related to mentorship is the finding that students (N=18) reported feeling part of a team. One student shared (#19), “The more I can work security at the events, the more included and a part of the team I feel.” A few students reported feeling shocked when their supervisors trusted them with highly confidential information.

Personal Development

We developed the category of personal development based on the students’ responses to the required journal questions and additional themes that emerged from the data. Based on the required journal responses, most (N=16) reported increased confidence or feeling more capable because of self-reported improvements in leadership, communication skills, and feeling part of a team.

The students (N=13) also reported increased leadership skills and some associated increased confidence with improved leadership skills because supervisors provided opportunities with responsibility including running groups with clients, dealing directly with offenders, and training other interns.

Most students (N=18) described improved communication skills, including verbal, written, or listening skills, and many attributed improvements in confidence to communication skills learned by engaging in conversations with clients, patients, and criminal justice professionals. Students gave examples of learning to speak in the courtroom, conduct interviews with potential new hires, use legal vernacular in both written and spoken forms, and converse with people from diverse backgrounds.

Interestingly, students (N=5) reported improvements in empathy. One student (#21) who interned with inmates shared: “I have seen a huge change in my empathy. I feel for these people and want to help. [The internship] taught me that everyone is going through something and that I need to be calm and patient because if I were going through the time they are, I would need that too.” Another student (#10) explained, “Calling the families of the murder victims really made me channel my inner empathy. I never thought I would be able to hit those feelings in me because it is really hard for me to be empathetic, but I felt like I was able to make special connections [with the families].” An additional ten students described feelings of empathy during the internship (though not increases in empathy), including experiencing happiness, sadness, and worry for clients, offenders, victims, or law enforcement.

Additional themes of skill development emerged from the data and include improved time management strategies (N=10), improved patience (N=7), improved social/interpersonal skills (N=5), and the opportunity to view situations in new ways (N=4) as illustrated by the student (#3) who wrote: “Due to my privilege, I have a hard time understanding why people do what they do. This internship is really helping me grow, understand, and figure out the real world.”

Affective Development

This category refers to feelings or emotions shared by the students. All students described the internship as interesting or enlightening (N=20). One student (#7) who worked with inmates shared: “Sending a letter to the inmates in prison was very eye-opening because I got to see another way inmates have a connection to the outside world. They can have tablets and can send letters to an inmate through Connect Network. On TV, the only way they display inmate interactions to the outside world is through handwritten letters or in-person visits, so seeing them able to have tables is heartwarming.”

Most students described the internship as enjoyable or fun (N=17), including time spent in the courtroom watching the sentencing unfold, learning to identify distinctive marks for fingerprinting, training the police dogs, spending time with police officers, and hanging out with detained youth.

Most students (N=18) described the internship as a rewarding experience because they liked helping others and making a difference. One student explained (#7), “Today I talked with [an ex-offender] and he told me that he found an apartment that was a perfect fit for him. He is very excited and grateful, and I couldn’t be happier for him…I feel like I am making a difference in my applicants’ lives and helping them get back on their feet.”

Fourteen students offered descriptions of gratitude for the internship and mentorship received. Students reported feeling grateful for supervisors who provided constructive feedback and opportunities for their next career move and for personal growth.

For some students (N=7) the internship elicited feelings of gratitude for their own families and resources. One student (#20) said: “My life has been sheltered. So, seeing people that must go through this system alone makes me thankful that I have family to support me. Another student (#10) explained: “This experience allowed me to take a step back and re-evaluate how good I have it. I am very fortunate to not have experienced loss or trauma like this, so for that I am thankful.”

Comments by students (N=5) suggested that the internship will help them transition from being a student to a professional because they learned the realities of work life. Students described having to adjust to a long eight-hour workday and having to adjust sleep schedules to have a productive day. Students learned to look beyond the content of each job to also consider lifestyle factors including commute time and what it feels like working in an office environment. Related to this transition was the finding that ten students described improved time management strategies because of having to juggle their internships, schoolwork and for some a part-time job, varsity sports, or family obligations.

Students also recognized that, notwithstanding the overall positive experiences, internships included boring days (N=6) and disappointments (N=5) which are important recognitions about the realities of work (that not every moment is exciting). These experiences may contribute to easing the transition to work life because they provide realistic expectations about work. According to one student (#13), “I had to keep track of the correspondence for a case. This is something that takes a long time and is boring because you have to go through every email, however it is extremely important to keep track of every single conversation.” Another described their day as “awash” when waiting at court for long periods of time only to have their cases postponed (#1). Three students described times when they felt underutilized.

It is not surprising that students also described challenging feelings during their internships. Students (N=11) described feeling anxious at some point during the internship because they reported feeling afraid to make a mistake or nervous that clients or supervisors wouldn’t take them seriously. Students’ feelings of nervousness gave way to feelings of confidence by the end of the semester as demonstrated by one student (#4) who shared: “…I realized that I was worrying too much and that I am doing a lot better in this environment than I expected. The students were faced with challenges that required them to leave their comfort zone which led to increased confidence over time.

Many students (N=15) described learning about topics that were hard to swallow or sad. According to one student (#16), “A seven-year-old girl was struck in the crossfire of a shoot-out. It was really sad to hear about this case, because the daughter just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time with her mother.” Another student wrote (#8): “Today was upsetting because I realized that some kids spend weeks in the detention center, and no one comes to visit them the whole time they are there.” Students who worked on sex offender and child abuse cases described feeling disturbed and angry and one (#3) shared: “I need a thicker skin.”

Awareness of the Realities of the Criminal Justice System

Students (N=11) described insights regarding the realities of the criminal justice system. One student (#2) shared, “It really is true that when you are a criminal defense attorney the entire fate of someone's life is in your hands.” A common response by students was that reality is far different from TV and their preconceived notions. One student shared, (#11), “The prosecutors and defense attorneys would discuss details about their cases. Normally these people are thought to be adversaries by the way that they are depicted on TV and in movies. However, for them to work well together they need to have mutual respect.”

Students (N=10) offered constructive criticism of the criminal justice system, focusing on delays, lawyers who do not show up to court, and disorganization. One student (#8) explained: “Youth are supposed to have their intake hearing within 72 hours of being detained. However, it took six days to set up the hearing and none of the staff at my internship seemed surprised because they were used to it.” Another student (#21) explained: “My supervisor gave out seek and finds today to people who were supposed to come to the office after court but did not. This happens a lot. This is a problem because we have no way to contact them. This is another example of how the criminal justice system has non-working parts.” The student (#7), whose responsibility was to work with ex-offenders to help them find jobs, explained: “I finally thought I found [my client] a job. Home Depot offered him the job and then did his background check, and he did not pass his background check. This made me upset and confused because they already offered him a job but then revoked the offer.”

Another criticism focused on injustices. One student (#18) who worked with the school system shared: “You can see the lack of special education teachers in [the city] and counselors when compared to other schools. This shocked me the most…I did not expect the differences to be so drastic between each school.” Another student explained (#20), “I am even more aware that disadvantaged people have a more difficult time getting representation that is good if they don’t have money.”

At the same time, four students described the strengths of the criminal justice system, focusing on professionals who were kind and fair. One student who worked at juvenile detention was impressed with how the defense attorney interacted with a youth. According to the student (#8), the youth said to the attorney: “Thank you for treating me like a human being.” She continued:

This statement really stuck with me because I believe it creates a true picture of our criminal justice system and how we treat offenders. They appreciate it when they are treated with dignity, and we as a system need to do our very best to make sure this stays consistent within every part of it.

Students also expressed feeling impressed with their perceptions of judicial fairness and the effectiveness of treatment courts.


Overall, the students who participated in the criminal justice internship described their internship experiences as invaluable. Consistent with studies on knowledge acquisition as summarized by Murphy and Gibbons (2017), our students demonstrated learning knowledge beyond the classroom, and the ability to integrate coursework and field experiences. They all viewed the internship as a vital learning experience. It is likely that the students’ successes can be attributed, in part, to the structure of the University’s internship program, including the required Pre-Internship course taken in junior year. Numerous students referenced the value of this course to help them prepare to select and succeed at the internship and the rigor of the internship program.

The internship program is designed to address criticisms of criminal justice internships noted in the research that internships are not academically rigorous (Johnson & Synder, 2020; Stitchman & Farkas, 2005). We achieve rigor by upholding high academic standards requiring students to complete an academic paper, daily journal, critical performance review by their site supervisor, and 15-minute presentation to all faculty and students. It is likely that high expectations of the program prepared the students to excel at their internships.

It is notable that of the 20 students, three students were offered paid positions at their internships: a reentry program, a private defense law firm, and a city police department. This finding is consistent with the research that college internships are related to employability (De Li & Chair, 2019; Salikoff, 2017).

Through the internship, the students reported developing soft skills that employers seek out when hiring (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2017) including leadership, ability to work in a team, verbal communication skills, and interpersonal skills. The students referenced these skills as reasons for their increased confidence. Also, the students expressed gratitude for their mentors and internship opportunities, which is important given that gratitude at work improves personal performance, positive relationships, social support, employee’s well-being, and the organizations’ climate and success (Di Fabio, Palazzeschi & Bucci, 2017).

Also, the internship experience provided the opportunity for students to improve their relational skills with individuals from diverse backgrounds who experience different circumstances from the students (Johnson & Snyder, 2020; Stitchman & Farkas, 2005), a skill particularly important for working in the criminal justice system today.

Students described feelings of empathy for offenders, victims, or their families. This finding is important because empathy, or the ability to understand another’s personal situation, has been described as the cornerstone for service (Keena & Krieger-Sample, 2018). Related to criminal justice, research points to empathy as necessary for effective policing (Posick, Rocque & Rafter, 2014). Our findings point to the internship as an effective opportunity for students to experience empathy and is consistent with research on experiential learning strategies that have been able to encourage and teach empathy among students (Keena & Krieger-Sample, 2018). The students bonded with their supervisors and coworkers and the individuals they served; they felt sad for some and happy for others. This finding is significant given that studies show that empathy increases when there is an emotional connection and an understanding of personal upset (Keena & Krieger-Sample, 2018). Also, empathy helps students identify their biases and misconceptions. Using empathy to understand the perspectives of those they serve, including victims, perpetrators, witnesses, stakeholders, and colleagues, allows professionals to create a more ethical, compassionate, and fair criminal justice system while understanding the unique needs of diverse client groups (Carver, 2015; Frey & Beesley, 2018; Koons-Witt, 2019). Our program aims to help students experience empathy, and journaling is one tool for encouraging students to reflect and utilize their own insights on the importance of empathy in the criminal justice profession.

Our finding that students became aware of the flaws of the criminal justice system is significant given that students’ own experiences of unfairness have been found to motivate their interest in studying criminal justice and their future work toward confronting injustice (Holsinger, 2012).

Implications for Future Pedagogy

Results from this study will be used to improve our internship program and criminal justice curriculum. One implication is to integrate the study of empathy earlier in the students’ college careers using empathy-focused projects (Keena & Krieger-Sample, 2018). In fact, studies identify the college years as the time when students are developmentally most prepared to increase empathy (Courtright, Mackey, & Packard, 2005). This finding seems particularly relevant for criminal justice majors because studies have shown that criminal justice majors had the lowest levels of empathy when compared to other majors (Courtright et al., 2005) and it is these students who have traditionally viewed law enforcement as an attractive profession (Courtright & Mackey, 2004). Courses aimed to foster empathy among criminal justice majors for the purpose of developing professionals who are sensitive to the complexities of a multicultural environment are critically necessary in light of efforts to reduce systemic racism.

Beginning the fall of 2023 all criminal justice majors at this University will be required to take a first-year seminar that focuses on career exploration and development. This course will include experiential learning exercises designed to stimulate empathy, and discussions on networking and the benefit of the mentor-mentee relationship. Students will also learn the qualities of an effective mentee, necessary for maximizing learning in the field (Abbajay, 2019). In this first-year course, expected feelings of discomfort and nervousness that may emerge while working in the field will also be addressed. The Pre-Internship course will revisit all these topics to help students prepare for the actual field experience.

Implications for Future Research

Our next steps will be to assess the responses more systemically using quantitative pre- post-surveys with a larger sample. A future qualitative study will also explore professors’ and field supervisors’ perceptions of the criminal justice internship, including its benefits and challenges of the criminal justice field internship. Providing these two lenses will further strengthen the university-internship site relationships and overall training of future criminal justice graduates.

Implications for Other Universities

Findings from this study can be used in a multitude of ways by other universities. These include sharing information with faculty on teaching pedagogies and approaches on how to support students during their internships as well as with researchers on how to enhance approaches to qualitative research in criminal justice. The implications of our findings are relevant to university faculty trying to establish new internship programs or improve their current programs within criminal justice and other disciplines.

We recommend integrating a pre-internship class as a prerequisite to the internship course to provide the students with the skills and content necessary to become a successful intern. These include proactively teaching students how to network, how to identify a mentor and how to become an effective mentee. We also recommend preparing students for the realities of working in the criminal justice system, including secondary-trauma and self-care topics by introducing difficult topics (e.g., child maltreatment and the impact of trauma) in the pre-internship course so that when students are exposed to painful situations in the field, they are better prepared intellectually and emotionally. 

It would also be helpful for students to learn in advance of the internship experience that it is common to feel nervousness and anxiety at the start of the new internship and to have opportunities to process these feelings with their advisors once they start the internship. Creating virtual or in-class discussions groups facilitated by the professor could also help students manage their uncertainty or stress associated with finding and then carrying out their fieldwork. We also recommend the use of student journals as a way to permit students to process their feelings and also for the professor to keep updated on the student's participation and experiences. In addition, ongoing one-on-one communication between the student and professor provides opportunities for the student to process their feelings and experiences and to obtain feedback on how to address challenges that emerge at the internship.

For departments starting up an internship program, we found that ongoing communication between the internship coordinator and site supervisor are important to the program's success, including properly matching the student with the organization's needs. We consistently integrate feedback to ensure that our program addresses each agency's needs. For example, one agency requested that the internship coordinator participate in the initial interview process for the internship and that the coordinator sign off on weekly hours.


One potential limitation is reduced credibility due to inconsistency in coding. We addressed this limitation by having two independent research assistants independently code the data in consultation with the professors. They reconciled any differences that emerged during the analysis phase. Another limitation is that students were given latitude to choose their own reflections, and even the required questions (as described in the data collection section) provided the students with flexibility for how to respond. If the student, for example, did not mention changes in confidence, we do not know whether there were increases or decreases or no changes in confidence. Future research will include the use of a standardized survey to obtain responses for all students.

It is possible that students overemphasized the positive aspects of their internship experience knowing that faculty members would read their journals. The professors supervising the students emphasized the value of honest reflections to minimize false reporting. The research is not generalizable to other Criminal Justice interns from other universities. Despite the small sample size from one university, using a random selection of journals combined with having reached saturation contributes to the generalizability of results.

Despite these identified limitations, to our knowledge this paper is the first that addresses how internship experience shapes student development using in-depth student journals. Given that the students described the internship as one of the most, if not the most important learning experiences over their college tenure, we will continue to evaluate student outcomes and the program to best prepare students for criminal justice careers.


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Nancy Blank, PhD, Widener University, teaches courses including Criminal Courts, Diversity in Criminal Justice, and Criminal Justice Research. She serves as the Criminal Justice Department's Internship Coordinator. Dr. Blank has designed, implemented, and evaluated literacy programs for youthful offenders and conducts research on experiential and active learning pedagogies.

Robin S. Goldberg-Glen, Ph.D., MSW, Widener University, is an associate professor and oversees the geriatric certificate program at Widener University, Center for Social Work Education. She has taught courses including advanced qualitative research, research methods, human behavior in the social environment, social work and social welfare, global social work and human rights, practice with males across the life cycle, and diversity. Her interests focus on qualitative research, aging, intergenerational service-learning, and global social work.

Lori Simons PhD, Widener University, teaches courses in Multicultural Psychology, Educational Psychology, Addictive Behaviors, and Counseling and Careers in Psychology. Dr. Simons serves as the Psychology Department's Practicum/Internship Coordinator and as the Co-Coordinator of the University's Academic Service-Learning Faculty Development Program. Dr. Simons has published in the area of academic-and cultural-based service-learning, diversity, and experiential learning pedagogies, and student learning.

Nicole Scharfetter is a senior enrolled in the five-year Widener Bachelor/Master of Social Work program and minoring in psychology. She is a member of Phi Alpha Nu, Widener's Center for Social Work Education chapter of the national social work honor society, and was chosen as a Widener SURCA research fellow.

Denna Grande, BA., is a 2023 Graduate of Widener University, where she majored in psychology and minored in criminal justice. She was elected co-president of Widener's Psi Chi Honor Society and completed a criminal justice/psychology internship. Denna will attend graduate school to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC).

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