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Opinion: Internship Culture– Overworked and Unpaid

It feels like everyone I know at American either has an internship or will not stop talking about a past internship. For a while I thought this was normal and that college meant juggling a part time internship, with a full course load and a part time job on the side–it is not normal. 

 Internship culture at AU puts extreme pressure on students to always be busy and bettering their resumes without actually emphasizing the benefits of downtime and other reasons to have an internship. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received is, not to intern for another bullet point on my resume, but to intern to figure out what I do or don’t want to do in life. For me, this means not always taking the more prestigious role but instead taking the position that truly sounds interesting to me. 


How AU perpetuates internship culture 

My freshman year, I was placed into a program in which a two-day internship was mandatory. While this program and the internship gave me valuable experience early on, the stress and added course load was too much for an 18 year old and greatly hindered my success throughout my first year of college. I asked other students who were enrolled in this program how it affected them. 

Sameer Ghai, a sophomore who was also in this program, said, “My internship was a  hinderance to my success and overall wellbeing because it often kept me away from my friends and other students during our first semester… as a whole, it was still a challenging experience to manage academics, an internship twice a week and a new social circle all at once.”

Internships can be great, they give students the opportunity to function in an office setting and to build connections early on. But internships still do more harm than good when they are put in the way of a student’s success in the classroom and what college is all about–finding yourself. 

Anna Schultz-Girl On Computer Stress
Anna Schultz / Her Campus

I believe a lot of college students are afraid to admit how important their social circle is to them. Working 20 hours a week and balancing classes does not give students the opportunity to build relationships and take time for themselves.

Erin Kual, a sophomore at American, experienced the fatigue of working a strenuous internship her freshman year and the toll it took on her social relationships and mental health. 

Kaul said, “I would leave my dorm at 7:30AM and come home by 7:30PM, when I got back, all I wanted to do was get into bed… while other college students were enjoying their Friday nights… I was missing out on the fun aspects of college.” 

A student’s freshman year of college is supposed to be the framework for the next four years, it is all about building those relationships and finding your people. Working an internship to this degree does not allow for that. 

Internships are an amazing opportunity for resume boosters, yet they are falsely gifted to first semester students. The kind of responsibility an internship and a full course requires is not something that most eighteen year olds are capable of. These programs take valuable time away from freshmen whose primary goal should be adjusting to college. 



Most internships in Washington DC are unpaid, making internships only available for those who can afford to work for free. This practice leaves those without parents who can subsidize their living expenses with no in-the-field experience nor the connections that are necessary to succeed in this city. 

The heavy emphasis placed on internships coupled with the limited availability of paid internships perpetuates a system that benefits those of a higher economic class. 

As reported by the New York Times, 70% of internships are part-time and 60% are unpaid, making 60% of all entry level job opportunities available to only the wealthy. Along with this, only 9% of offices in the House of Representatives provide information about intern wages on their websites. Meaning students are applying to internships unaware of a potentially deal breaking fact. 


What can we do?

I am not advocating for the end of internships, they are a necessary evil in today’s society. Instead, I hope that we will begin to question the systems that are in place and the institutions that form our beliefs. 

As AU students, to change this culture we must begin to deconstruct our notions of hard work. This is something that I’m sure we’re all guilty of, silently judging our friends who may not have  as expansive a resume as us, viewing those who aren’t working 24/7 as lazy and holding ourselves to an unattainable standard. 

I also encourage AU to provide clearer and healthier advice on interning and to cut back on programs that require internships freshman year. By working as an institution to foster a more positive relationship with internships, AU will better the overall health of its student body. 

The rejection of traditional internship culture is becoming an international movement, with protests against unpaid internships occurring in both Quebec and London. In the United States Pay Our Interns is leading the way in the fight against free labor. The non-profit has organized strikes and protests against unpaid internships, but also offers an intern relief fund. Organizations such as this are essential in advocating for a healthier internship culture. 


Sources- 1, 2, 3

Images- HerCampus Media Library 

Mackenzie Riley

American '23

Mackenzie is a sophomore at American University studying SIS with a minor in Spanish. She loves writing poetry and exploring Washington DC in her free time, discovering new hidden gems. She enjoys writing about environmental sustainability, campus safety, and self care!
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