As we make our way through the spring semester, the realities of summer internships become clear: For students not interested in fields like finance or consulting, paid opportunities can be few and far between.
This editorial board believes that the culture of unpaid internships must change. It both pressures students to work for free instead of finding other ways to spend the summer and disadvantages students who do not have the means to accept an unpaid position. The requirement to work without compensation favors students who already have the resources they need to cover their expenses. This limits the applicant pool for these positions and can result in low socioeconomic diversity in the eventual group of hired interns, creating a dangerous trend which excludes low-income students from professional opportunities.
Still, some feel compelled to take unpaid positions, even if doing so will be financially challenging. The idea that you need to “get your foot in the door” by working for free—or practically free—so that you can procure a paid job upon graduation is one of the strongest symptoms of today’s internship culture. The experience an intern gains, the connections they can make, and the opportunity to produce or publish “real” work is equated with monetary compensation. But for students who need to earn money to afford the costs associated with college and life, having an advantage for the future does not help in the present.
Georgetown is considered one of the best schools in the nation to study government, and our campus’ location in the nation’s capital means students have remarkable access to the federal government, non-profits, and other political organizations. But many of these opportunities, especially within the federal government, are unpaid. Internships on Capitol Hill are some of the most egregious examples of unpaid internships, involving mostly menial work and little actual learning experience. A few offices do pay their interns, and others offer scholarships for interns with financial need, but a report in The Washington Post showed the vast majority cite their limited budgets as reasons to use “experience” as compensation.
We believe all internships on the Hill must be paid, or at least offer scholarships to those who demonstrate financial need. The U.S. government relies on a diversity of perspectives and experiences to properly function, which cannot happen when low-income individuals are not given a chance to even get their foot in the door.
Many Georgetown students will face this same possibility over the next two years as they consider interning with one of the many presidential campaigns. In the 2016 election cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the only presidential candidate who paid his interns. While this cycle is just getting started and information is not yet available on which candidates will be paying their interns, it is likely most of them will not.
Working with universities to offer academic credit is a popular option for companies hiring unpaid interns. Georgetown students can take the course “College Internship Experience” for one credit. A normal one-credit course meets once a week for an hour, whereas an internship can involve working upwards of 20 hours a week, not including time spent commuting to and from an office.
There are scholarships available for students pursuing unpaid internships, which can help cover certain expenses such as transportation and purchasing business attire. These are especially important for summer internships because for most students on financial aid, rent and dining are included as a part of their room and board during the school year. University affiliates, such as the Career Center, as well as a number of clubs including the Corp and GU Women in Leadership, offer these scholarships. But students still have to apply for the limited number of scholarships, which takes time that many students may not have if they are juggling school and work, and the decisions are not always based on financial need.
Students with a demonstrated financial need should be first in line for these funds so that they have the opportunity to take internship positions when they may not otherwise be able to do so.
As we look for summer internships, it is important to be realistic with ourselves and the people we might work for. We should feel comfortable saying we cannot work full-time because we need to work a paying job as well. We should prioritize our self-care, self-fulfillment, and best interests: If we will be doing menial labor, unpaid, for hours each week, we should reconsider if the experience will truly be valuable in the long run, and whether this is an internship we actually need. But most importantly, the culture of unpaid internships must change, and if we speak up and demand more of our institutions and employers, we can make a difference.