Value of college experience is up to you

Unpaid internships aren’t exploitative, and it takes initiative to develop work skills.

Camille Galles

The word “internship” carries a variety of connotations. For some, the title indicates glamour and success and the thrill of being one step closer to the “real world.” For others, internships are useless — exploitive programs that favor the already-privileged.

As summer approaches, undergraduates looking to experience a meaningful summer can feel caught between two options: to intern or not to intern. It’s a valid question, but one that I would answer with another: Who cares? Broadly assigning value to a college experience is a task we would be better off abandoning.

Completing a degree at a four-year institution is already a tremendous time, energy and money drain. Over the past 50 years, the average annual cost of college (including room and board, tuition and fees) has more than doubled. It’s much more expensive to attend college now than in the past, and it’s much less likely that students will land a good job that will start paying off their loans anytime soon after graduation.

Most students enter their post-secondary education aware of those facts, but they’re still convinced of a college degree’s value. Others, though, myself included, find themselves dismayed when their college education starts to become less than satisfying.

Four years is a long time to be doing the same thing — the same classes in the same major with the same kids who all go to the same type of parties.

How does one gain value from that experience?

For many who feel frustrated by the undergraduate experience, an unpaid internship is often a chance to try something different, meet new people and experience a world beyond the college bubble. But the internship world is only accessible to those who can afford to work for free. What’s more, interning can be just as tedious as a college class. Few positions offer guaranteed jobs after graduation, too.

So are college kids doomed to endure frustrating, meaningless experiences? Absolutely not. In these weird four years of post-high school, pre-adult life, experiences gain value by how we choose to interpret them.

An internship can be a bunch of boring hours copying paperwork, or it can be an opportunity to create your own projects and learn more about what kind of career you really want.

A dull course can be a nap in a desk, or it can be a reason to go to office hours and investigate the broader context of course materials. A paid job like lifeguarding or waitressing can help you develop skills an unpaid “professional” internship never could.

No matter the experience, the responsibility falls on us to make it unique, meaningful and worth our time. Our interpretation of a position is what makes it valuable to employers, and to us. “Intern,” “English major” and “college student” mean nothing on their own. Experiences themselves aren’t inherently valuable — we are.