Slaving away at summer internships

I hadn’t even set foot in a college classroom before the word internship’ was pounded into my head — a word that still inflicts incredible pressure each time I hear it mentioned.
One spring afternoon, while in high school, my parents and I attended a university campus tour. We were eventually led into a stark classroom where college journalism students told us about the demands of the business.
“You won’t get a job unless you intern!” said one young Guy Smiley — a broadcast major dressed like he was going on-camera. “Believe me — it’s your only ticket in the door!”
“No one gets a job after graduation unless they’ve had an internship!” warned a pale girl with heavy glasses.
At that point, I was convinced that I would need to intern to save my father from the stroke he would suffer were I to be unemployed upon graduation. My fears resulted in a string of internships across the country. Some were good. Some were nightmares. Some paid me well and allowed me to stock up on a professional wardrobe. Others plunged me into debt just paying for daily parking.
And guess what I have lined up for after graduation this spring? Not gainful employment, but another internship.
These days, companies value “real work” experience almost as much as your diploma. This complicates a college student’s life because suddenly it’s not enough to just attend classes, balance a social life, participate in extra-curricular activities and work to earn some rent money. Now, you have to pay dues in a sometimes thankless position that may or may not pay off in years to come.
Interning can suck. The job technically isn’t a job and your task description is usually in a very gray area. You are inevitably at the bottom of the corporate food chain. But you accept all this graciously just on the outside chance that the company might offer you a future job in your chosen profession.
Getting the internship

A friend of mine was so determined to intern for a professional sports team that she wrote to it almost weekly, inquiring about summer possibilities. Though the team politely told her to wait, the office staff quickly came to recognize her name.
When she finally called the office’s public relations manager and said, “I’d like to tour the office. How’s Wednesday?” they actually agreed and ended up interviewing her for the internship.
Most managers are so busy with the daily workload that they enjoy taking any break from the monotony, even if it is just to look over your stuff. Be creative. Make your name stand out in their minds. If you feel like you are making an ass of yourself, you are finally doing enough.
Suffering through the internship

Many students are elated when they first hear that they have been awarded an internship with a prestigious company. This excitement can quickly disappear, however, when you learn that your new, official title is “glorified coffee maker.”
One of my friends was thrilled to land an internship at a university public relations department only to learn that he really was the personal chauffeur for the university’s president.
Another friend was excited to work for a downtown radio station, and then drove a van full of equipment around town all summer.
The worst part of this is that there is no way to make these jobs look good on a resume. In the end, you might be better off using your brain part-time in some lowly part-time job than letting your mind rot doing piddley tasks for no pay and little respect.
The best course of action is to avoid these demeaning internships, particularly since they are usually unpaid. Even if you want a company’s name on your resume, think twice before signing off as an indentured servant for three months. When you are working at the bottom, the best contacts you will make are only the other bottom-dwellers.
Taking advantage of the internship

If you take an unpaid internship, make sure that you receive at least some nonpecuniary compensation. Unpaid internships are one of the biggest corporate crimes in this country, slightly above the exploitation of cheap Third World labor.
When asked, most corporations will explain that they can’t pay interns because “the budget won’t allow it.” Baloney. Most companies have a lunch budget larger that what an intern could live on for a month; they just don’t admit it.
The real reason interns aren’t paid is simple: supply and demand. Most companies can get away with these practices because they receive dozens of applications for each intern position they advertise. Although it is technically illegal to work without pay, the companies know that you will not reveal the dark secret because you are really “volunteering” your services in exchange for the honor of learning in their presence.
Even though you are made to feel lucky to have the unpaid internship, do not be shy about reminding them of your economic situation. Ask for free parking. Request free company gifts. Raid the supply cabinet. There are plenty of ways to make some sort of profit during your internship. At the least you shouldn’t need to buy pens the following fall.
Two friends of mine have closets full of sports gear from their many unpaid sports internships. They receive regular free tickets to events, too. Yeah, they would have liked to be paid. But when everyone wants to work for a professional sports team and say things like, “Oh, Hi, Paul (Molitor),” companies realize they can impress you better than they can pay you.

Fighting the internship establishment

Unpaid internships are incredibly classist. The company assumes that you have other means of income — enough to spend 25 hours a week doing unpaid labor outside of your 25 hours of costly classes. In other words, your parents must be funding your education and paying all your bills. Moreover, your services really aren’t all that valuable so why bother paying for them?
As an intern, you are still learning and may not perform tasks as well as other employees, but you are still giving valuable hours to the company. We are being exploited. Just because you have chosen not to waste your mental capacity pumping gas and making minimum wage, does not mean you should be donating your brain to a company for free. Make sure you get everything you can.
Furthermore, unpaid internships virtually exclude students who are from low-income families and are struggling just to afford tuition. This policy is by no means equitable in today’s society.
Sadly, so long as you are the unpaid intern, there is little you can do to change this state of affairs. But when you are finished being exploited, take a moment to try and make things better for the next intern. Write a letter to the corporate president describing the financial burden that you endured for his company might just make the difference in the future.
Life as an intern will expose you to the best and worst of your profession. You can learn on-the-job skills that aren’t taught in lecture halls. You can make valuable contacts for the references part of your resume. And if anything, you can see if your profession is right for you.
Someday when all the internships have paid off, and you have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder, do me a favor. Remember the life of the poor college student, and, if anything, pay your interns!

Sara Goo will begin her sixth internship this summer. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]