There’s a terrible underbelly to the practice of internships that transcends the anxiety of finding an opportunity that leads to a ‘productive’ summer; and it plagues low income students disproportionally.
This past spring semester, I felt frantic with worry over how I was going to fill up my summer. I knew that staying at home was out of the question—partly because boredom ironically stifles all creative thought within me—but also because of these expectations set upon us that we must always be productive to succeed in this society. All of the internships that I applied to happened to be paid, save one. Guess which one I ended up with.
I accepted the position without a second thought—I hadn’t been offered any others, and the job description genuinely excited me. As I set about making my plans for the summer, I was struck with necessary logistics that frustrated me to no end. Where was I going to live? How would I pay for rent? How would I pay for food? How would I get to the internship? The list of how’s felt interminable, but it’s all an unfortunate part of weathering American higher education with a low income background. The task stood as having a self-sufficient, professionally successful summer where I managed to save enough money to pay for all of my own tuition costs for the following semester. My parents will have three children in college this year, and the guilt of adding to their burdens motivated me further.
Thanks to previous opportunities I had, I knew where to look for housing. I became a Pre-College Driver, which means that my 5’2 frame was in charge of driving a 12-person van full of high school kids around the city. That paid for my housing, and in exchange, I drove for them 3-5 times a week—each excursion taking two or three hours. Thus, I figured out the internship and the housing; but I still needed a job to pay for food and transportation. Before the school year ended, I applied to host at a restaurant a short walk from my school. Then, I lugged my brother’s old middle school bike to campus, so I could bike the 4 miles from my job-issued apartment to the unpaid internship. The $60 I would have spent on a student bus pass seemed extravagant. And let me tell you, it took approximately 20 minutes on that old bicycle to realize that the flames on its frame deceptively hid that the fact that it probably would have been faster for me to walk to the internship.
As ridiculous as I felt pedaling for my life, I felt even more ridiculous once I arrived at my internship. Everyone there was shiny, polished, and looked ridiculously accomplished. They were researching history, politics, and foreign affairs; I felt like I had scraped by into the internship. The classic imposter syndrome (the belief of not believing you belong there, seen among people of color in predominantly White institutions, or first-generation students generally in higher education) snaked its way in. Suddenly, I found myself working two jobs so I could go to an internship where I felt that I neither belonged nor valued. I felt like a cog in a machine, expected to do my 9-5 quietly then leave.
It all snowballed downhill from there, mentally. It was exhausting to work three jobs, and I found myself unwilling to get out of bed in the morning—the physical fatigue was exacerbated by the imposter syndrome. I let my diligence slip.
Positive things did come out of it, though. And don’t worry, as soon as my tasks increased in volume, so did my diligence and enthusiasm. I realized that this world is run by people, and that social capital may be even more important than grades. Though, as we know, being a first-generation college student doesn’t afford us much social capital. There’s less of a chance of our family connecting us to a professional in their office, etc. that can offer us an internship. Thus, we are doubly disadvantaged. Less accessibility to internships because of financial constraints means less accessibility to social capital, and ultimately, considering that social capital is a significant aid in the job search, less accessibility to jobs and career paths.
It is time to realize that this whole system of unpaid internships is classist, and by extension, elitist. They efficiently filter those unable to pay for experience, and help perpetuate wealth inequality. Just like college education, admission is an exception to a standard of exclusion. Furthermore, internships have consequences beyond college students. Internships, with their exploitative unpaid labor, reduce the bargaining power of those filling entry level positions, because their work can be taken over by unpaid interns.
Luckily, I was able to juggle the three jobs and foster relationships with professionals at the internship, but I am tired of being one of the few exceptions to the rule. If the internship had been in a different city, even if it was paid, I would have been unable to accept it. I would have a completely different story because I could not have relied on the resources I knew of in my school, and costs of living fluctuate—not to mention the up-front costs of moving to a different place. Never has it been more apparent that meritocracy is an illusion. We work hard to get good internships, but in the end, that’s not always enough. Acceptance into an internship program does not actually guarantee matriculation into it. Internships should not be classist, and we should not live in a system that works so hard to demean our value. They’re great experience, and will lead to greater opportunities, but what is the cost of admission? And what does it cost to society in the long run?