Valuing Yourself as an Unpaid Intern: My Summer Internship Experience and How I Learned to Know Exactly What I Want

By Brian Klose
Opinion Editor

One of the most common ways to spend a break between college terms taking part in a winter or summer internship. When seeking out these internships, it is important to not only know what the organization wants in an applicant, but what you want in an organization or program.
Valuing yourself throughout the entire process is one of the most important, yet underrated, criteria when making the right choice. Compensation, benefits, work-duties, and general organizational environments are all factors to consider when deciding which internship is best for you. Determining what you want out of an internship before entering one, especially as a first-time intern, can be quite challenging and is entirely subjective. Sometimes you learn to value yourself mid-way through, which has the potential to tarnish the experience you worked so hard to achieve.
I spent most of the spring semester of my junior year fine-tuning my resume, writing cover letters, and browsing the Internet for a variety of internships. Naturally, as a theatre major, I wanted an opportunity that would give me a glimpse of the professional theatre world. I stayed local with my options, applying to theatres in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
Eventually, I chose to devote my summer to a theatre in DC. My goal is to be a theatre educator after college, and the position was in the theatre’s education department. I was beyond excited to see first-hand how theater education worked outside a college campus.
The internship was unpaid, but offered benefits including free shows and potentially paid opportunities. I came into the internship with a set of expectations, my biggest mistake, which fit my wants, but didn’t exactly coincide with the actual responsibilities of the position.

I expected to assist in teaching and outreach, but ended up doing most of my work behind a desk as more of an administrative assistant to the education director. I was given a more behind the scenes look at the department instead of working in a teaching environment. I attended staff meetings, took calls, and created workflow documents designed for future interns. At the time, I felt extremely disappointed and underutilized because I had been expecting to incorporate a lot more creativity and theatre know-how into the work given to me.
Now, however, I realize that much of my disappointment came not from the actual internship, but from the way I treated my expectations and devalued myself. Was it wrong for a theatre internship to give more administrative office work? Absolutely not. If anything, this taught me the importance of basic business skills that can be applied to any business or organization, including best practices of communication and how to spend a typical eight-hour workday effectively. But because I neglected to evaluate what I truly wanted out of the internship before accepting it, my worries about not having the best experience became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ultimately, the internship was an incredible learning experience. As I move forward and start searching for more opportunities, either in the form of an internship or the first steps towards a career, I will take exactly what I want much more seriously.
So how can someone make an internship a better experience even before the first day? The obvious and most important step in preparation is learning exactly what your internship involves. This includes responsibilities in the workplace, how you plan on getting to and from the organization, and what benefits the organization can and will provide. Communicating with the designated people in charge of either the internship program or the specific department receiving your application will give you the clearest picture of what to expect. You won’t need to rely on unconfirmed or false expectations.
One of the most difficult aspects of an internship to consider is compensation, or, more often than not, a lack thereof. Internships, especially in the arts community, are typically unpaid or offer a small stipend for travel. As you start to compile a list of options, pay close attention to any indications of compensation. Hard questions to ask yourself are how much am I willing to do without receiving payment? Do I value the experience more than a paycheck? Am I willing to travel farther than anticipated to take a paid opportunity? Again, the answers to these questions are entirely subjective and should be consistent with your wants and needs. If you do take an internship that is unpaid, it is never a bad idea to at least have a conversation about compensation with your supervisors.
Navigating the internship search is often a daunting experience. One thing to never forget, however, is that you will be a helpful addition to any organization. Knowing exactly what you want and valuing yourself as accurately as possible will ensure the best experience.

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