A New Look At Unpaid Internships

This recent op-ed in the New York Times takes a magnifying glass to the dealings behind unpaid internships these days – it turns out that colleges are not just fulfilling the saintly mission of bringing opportunities to “break into the workforce.” Sometimes there are greater forces pulling the strings.

Honestly, I think that this article is even more interesting when taken from a student perspective. As Barnard students, we are told that this school will groom us for positions of leadership and greatness. Internships are fed into that vein of thinking – you are supposed to be gobbling them up, even if you don’t like them. As I’ve heard it put before: taking an internship you don’t like allows you to see what jobs you don’t want to do. I know that there is value in the exploration process, but I don’t think it is often brought up that there are market forces behind that statement. They are still getting your working hours, your sanity, and (as the article points out) sometimes your tuition money. In some ways, colleges are pressured to make those statements so that you stick on it and allow businesses to utilize your labor. If you love the work, that may be great, but if you are just sticking it out for the sake of it… I am not so sure.
On another level, I believe that internships (paid or unpaid) can become a real status symbol for students at our college. I certainly know the disappointment of hearing someone talk about all the phenomenal internships they have. It makes me wonder if I’m not “doing enough” by “just” focusing on work, school, and the occasional club. Again, it comes down to the heart of it. Do you love your internship? Are you going to go into that field/is it actually letting you break in somewhere? Excellent. But if the heart is not there, it can create a culture of status based on who is working “the hardest.” As with academics, hearing the one-upmanship of who pulled the most all-nighters or who has the most internships she can juggle can get really upsetting. And, on the other end of the spectrum, getting anxious about not having an internship lined up during the summer is not good either. We hurt ourselves by taking on too much and stressing about not having enough.

This article points out something that should have been evident beforehand: internships are not the end-all, be-all experience of college. Especially unpaid internships. So, I say we give ourselves a break and really look at what is important to our college experience.


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