Unpaid internships gatekeep necessary professional experience

By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer

Unpaid internships are a conundrum with which college students are all too familiar. Internships provide valuable opportunities to those seeking work experience in a given field, but students completing unpaid internships may find it difficult to financially support themselves.

Washington College Career Center Executive Director Nanette Cooley and Assistant Director Georgina Bliss believe internships to be essential components to a student’s career preparation plan.

“This sentiment is passed forward to my own children — students who I encouraged to seek internships while in school,” Bliss said. “Their summer internships were particularly valuable in providing a foundation toward understanding what ‘work’ looks like in a specific industry or setting.”

Unfortunately, unpaid positions are often the most prevalent option available for college students seeking work experience, which may mean that monetary income must be sacrificed in favor of professional development.

The concept of an unpaid internship is regarded as outdated by students and professionals alike. Using someone’s labor without compensation for their time is unethical. Moreover, students facing financial barriers are often not able to participate in unpaid opportunities. This makes such work experience an exclusive privilege when it should be a right for young professionals. As a result, only students able to receive financial support from external sources — usually their families — are eligible for unpaid internships. This excludes students from low-income families from pursuing such learning opportunities.

“While internships are highly valued in the job market, research also shows that 43% of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid,” Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar said in Harvard Business Review. “As a result, only young people from the most privileged backgrounds end up being eligible for such roles.”

These unequal opportunities further income disparity between economic classes, as internship positions often give one an advantage when applying for permanent, paying jobs. The economic barriers associated with unpaid internships disproportionately impact Black students, as found in a 2019 study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

According to NACE, Black students comprised 6.6% of the 4,000 graduating students surveyed, yet Black graduates made up 7.3% of the group with unpaid internships, making them overrepresented in that category. Moreover, only 6% of students receiving paid internships were Black, making them underrepresented in that category.

Fortunately, there are institutions with programs in place to make unpaid internships feasible for students regardless of their socioeconomic standing or financial needs. WC offers internship funding through the Hodson Trust as well as signature center programs, which are available to all students.

“One of the benefits of attending WC is that the College has funding that supports students who are participating in internships, including those that are underpaid and unpaid,” Cooley said. “Annually, the College typically awards approximately $100,000 to students who apply for summer internship stipends or grants.”

WC senior Carlee Berkenkemper was a recipient of such funding during a summer internship in 2020 with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, arranged through WC’s Center for Environment and Society.

“The National Aquarium, to my knowledge, does not offer paid internships, so I would have had to take on an unpaid position in order to work there,” Berkenkemper said. “I was able to gain that professional experience through funding from the College, because, otherwise, working without pay just wouldn’t have been feasible.”

While the experiences gained during an unpaid internship can provide important job training and beneficial insight into the “real” professional world, they are an unethical relic of an outdated economic system.

For students shouldering the financial burden of college themselves, working without pay is not an option. The institutional practice of expecting students to do so prevents all but wealthy students from accessing such opportunities, potentially placing less privileged students at a disadvantage when it comes time to pursue a permanent career.

Institutions such as WC that recognize and attempt to rectify this inequality are ensure equal opportunities for all students; however, the professional world as a whole should begin reconsidering the concept of unpaid internships in favor of positions that would better serve the modern student.

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