Summers during college: They can be for relaxing after two semesters of hard work or for learning about careers.

Many students do both by landing internships at U.S. tech firms, especially in California’s Silicon Valley region. International students studying in the U.S. are eligible to work as interns at many of these companies, thanks to the Optional Practical Training program.

Jennifer Roberts, who recruits for Twitter Inc., the global social media platform with headquarters in San Francisco, estimates the company hires 125 interns every summer. Each intern is assigned to a manager and also to a mentor. Roberts said she emphasizes to the managers and mentors that interns should be given challenging projects. “[Interns] are all very surprised when they get here how much freedom and how much trust they’re given,” she said.

At Yahoo Inc., the search and advertising services company in Sunnyvale, California, “we try to make everything engaging and memorable,” said Bryan Machado, who runs Yahoo’s intern program. He said that, in addition to their day jobs, interns attend panels led by top executives, participate in team-building events and kick back during social events planned specifically for them.

Casino Night is a social event for Yahoo interns at the company’s headquarters. It doesn’t actually involve gambling for money. (Courtesy photo)

Getting in the door

Sounds pretty great, right? But landing an internship can be competitive. Yahoo chooses 300 interns each summer from 2,000 applications, and that ratio is not unusual. There’s a lot of interest because students view internships as a first step toward their new careers.

As a junior at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2011, Kati Dahm scored an internship on the social-media communications team at Cisco Systems Inc., an IT solutions corporation. Afterward, she was offered and accepted the job she now holds at Cisco. This, she says, is not unusual. “Our interns are fully aware that this is really important and that [getting hired] can happen.”

Machado is even more direct. “When we hire an intern,” he said, “our main goal is to convert them to a full-time employee.”

Patricia Rose, who directs the Office of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said that, of the people who have jobs at the time they graduate from her college, 25 percent got those jobs with companies they interned with the previous summer. “There are some employers who hire the majority of their full-time staff from among their intern pools. They’ve had the benefit of seeing them work for 10 weeks. There’s less risk in making an offer.”

To take the first step toward studying in the U.S., visit Education USA. If you’re already studying in the U.S. and want to learn more about internships, check the careers page of companies that interest you, and research your eligibility through the Department of Homeland Security.