Sorry, I can’t afford work experience

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have been an intern since I was in high school, wearing the hats of coffee fetcher, interview transcriber, article writer and self-esteem booster for various companies. Since I was 16, I have been on the look for experiences to grow my skills, open my horizons and provide me opportunities to achieve my ambitious goals in the future.

As internships continue to become more popular, I have noticed a common trend in that employers like to use the blanket word “unpaid internships” as interchangeable with “volunteer work.” Although interns are held to the same (if not higher) expectations as an actual employee, the lack of compensation continues the exploitation of students wanting to learn as much as possible.

Let’s take the White House for example. In 2009, President Barack Obama said in a joint session of Congress on health care that “we did not come to fear the future, we came to shape it.” However, interns in his own office face financial insecurity for their unpaid internships and have their future shaped by what they can afford.

White House interns are expected to find their own housing, work four and a half days a week, and nine hours per day. Not only do students have to balance their own coursework, but they are only allowed to leave for class early one day per week. Any financial aid that interns receive from outside sources have to be pre-approved by the White House beforehand.

Living in Washington, D.C., is not cheap. The Washington Post named Washington D.C. as the fifth-most expensive city for single people to live in. Even worse, it was named as the most expensive city for a family of four. Students who are unpaid for doing quality work are going in debt and acquiring financial stress for the prospect of opportunities that may or may not be guaranteed.

If the job was hands-on work, perhaps it would be worth the investment. However, the job description of a White House intern consists of “conducting research, managing incoming inquiries, attending meetings, writing memos, and staffing events.”

This sounds strikingly similar to the job description of a secretary, provided by Monster.com, which includes various responsibilities ranging from “(producing) information” to “(organizing) work by reading and routing correspondence.”

A paycheck provides legal protections that an unpaid intern is deprived of. Luckily, in my years of interning, I have not encountered a situation where I felt my safety was compromised or threatened. However, an unpaid intern is denied workman’s compensation, legal protection in the company code of conduct and other rights that an employee is given. Not only are students held to the constant scrutinizing of their internship coordinator, but they are forced to provide their own housing and struggle to accommodate their class schedules with the immense demands of the internship.

What’s more, not everyone can afford to do an unpaid internship. School is expensive enough as it is and only gets worse when the cost of housing, food, family costs, books and car payments are taken into consideration. I find myself privileged that I am able to do unpaid internships and survive, but it comes at the cost of sleep, mental health and time spent with family and friends. Yet, since many internships are required as work experience before a student enters the workforce, social mobility is excluded for people of low socioeconomic backgrounds.

I’m currently taking 18 units, interning and working in order to make ends meet. Any money that I am able to make goes directly into my education, trying to help my family and running my magazine. I find myself awake at night with the worries of how I am going to afford next quarter’s costs and whether or not another dream will be deferred because of my inability to afford the supplies to make it happen. In a time when our dreams are developing and at a place where we are able to find the resources to make them come to life, they are still being defeated by the lack of financial stability that so many students face because of greedy employers who exploit the enthusiasm of students.

The promise of work experience is no longer an acceptable response for internship coordinators to actively recruit college students who put hope in the promise of helping their career ambitions. It’s time to make the differences between volunteering, interning and working clear, and to give a voice to the interns who are routinely denied it.

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