We Need to Talk About Unpaid Internships

“So why are you leaving your current position?”

This is the question that I continue to stumble over in job interviews, no matter how well the interviews are actually going. Do I tell them it’s because I want something more relevant to my degree or because I want to broaden my horizons? Or...do I give them the truth?

“I can’t work unpaid anymore.”

Embedded deep within college culture, we are faced with the premise of unpaid internships and their necessity to succeed. They’re fantastic to gain relevant experience, build connections and apply classroom material in a professional environment. They’re even better to help you narrow down your own interests and really solidify what you want to do following graduation.

The issue that’s come up time and time again when I receive an internship offer is the panic of trying to make it work financially. Unpaid internships require commuting costs, whether gas or Metro fare, and major sacrifice. They require time, preventing the ability to hold a second job part-time in retail or food service.  I’ve been extremely privileged to have family help me through the multiple unpaid internships I’ve held, but the majority of students aren’t as lucky. Paid internships are few and far between, leaving many students with a degree but no experience -- placing even more barriers between them and a future income as the reality of loan payments looms.  

When they asked me about leaving my current unpaid internship, I struggled with the idea of feeling guilty for wanting money. I am grateful for the ample experience I have through internships and I pray every day that it pays off with a great job, but I feel uncomfortable placing a monetary value on my worth and skills as a college student when asked to.

I am well aware that the world owes me nothing and I should not expect a well paying job to be handed to me on a silver platter the minute I receive my degree. That is in no shape or form practical (or realistic). The issue is that I, among many of my peers, are barely making ends meet while we gain that experience, and our basic well-being is beginning to suffer for it.

“In the National Association of Colleges & Employers (NACE) 2012 Internship & Co-op Survey, it was reported that more than 40% of the total expected number of new hires for 2011 – 2012 were expected to come from a company’s internship program.”

Forty percent.

Not only does that put extremely hard-working (and likely qualified recent graduates or college students) at a disadvantage, but it places those who can easily afford it in a better professional advantage. Those who work ample unpaid internships likely have a strong financial and family support system with connections. This contributes to the cycle of poverty and continues to hamper the efforts of those who try to leave or break the cycle.

Recently elected congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announce her intentions this week to compensate all of her interns with a minimum $15 an hour. Many other House and Senate members are either required or will be required to compensate their interns, but the amount will likely be limited. This move by Ocasio-Cortez will hopefully lead to a shift in unpaid or poorly paid internship expectations on the Hill (and throughout the country.)

Employers, I understand how convenient it is to have unpaid interns. We are all grateful for the experience and professional relationships you offer, as well as the advice and growth. Unfortunately, these positions are not practical or frankly, possible, without some sort of financial source. Consider a small stipend or travel reimbursement at the bare minimum. Not only will you find some of your most hard-working interns through this, you’ll find future dedicated employees who will help your organization thrive.

Please do not feel guilty for wanting to support yourself and be a responsible adult, collegiettes. Know your worth.