Students and professors weigh in on the value of unpaid internships
Like hundreds of students, University of Oregon junior Corina Perea is considering applying for internships. She’s an international studies major and would like to get some professional experience before she graduates.
Even so, she’s not sure whether to take an unpaid internship or hold out for something paid. She’s worried an unpaid internship might be a waste of her time.
“Internships have the potential to be an amazing tool, but it also allows room for exploitation,” said Perea, who is also majoring in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “A student can get an internship at a law firm, and while they get to put that on their resume, they actually just spent the summer grabbing coffees and answering phone calls.”
Perea is not alone in her apprehension. Many students and faculty members say that while internships can help bridge the gap between secondary education and full-time employment, some students can’t afford to work for free as an intern and others wonder if an unpaid internship will offer a less meaningful experience.
“Sometimes the reality of an internship is very different than what was advertised,” said Gretchen Soderlund, associate professor in the UO School of Journalism and Communication. “I’ve talked to students who have done internships that were basically glorified administrative assistant positions that didn’t in any way prepare them for the job market they’re looking to break into.”
Todd Milbourn, co-director of UO’s journalism masters program, also noted that unpaid internships are not an option for students who need paid work in order to cover tuition and make ends meet.
“That exposure and that experience is essential and you’re going to need that to land a job. But in the meantime, exposure and experience doesn’t pay the bills,” Milbourn says. “It doesn’t pay the rent and it doesn’t make sure you have your groceries covered.”
Milbourn emphasized how the financial stability throughout an unpaid internship can hold those who need the wages out of the job market.
“What happens is, the students that can take those unpaid internships tend to come from wealthier backgrounds. They either have parental support or have funding themselves,” Milbourn said. “It’s a barrier that’s going to keep out a whole bunch of people who otherwise are bringing really great things to the table. It’s a big problem, and I think it’s one that more and more students are having to navigate. It’s troubling.”
However, Milbourn doesn’t want to underestimate the value of internships as a tool to help students apply their education.
“Internships have always been important. I think that what young people are trying to do is build work experience, build portfolios, build skills — and internships are a really critical way to do that,” Milbourn said. “They also give you an opportunity to test out what you’re learning in the classroom.”
Like Milbourn, Soderlund understands the importance of internships. She just wishes there could be a guarantee of value, whether it’s monetary or otherwise.
“The internship has to be conceived of as an educational experience for the interns coming in rather than as a way to get cheap labor,” Soderlund said. “There has to be some kind of compensation, or else it’s unclear whether this is a training program or they’re just getting a lot of free labor.”
Hannah Schandelmeier-Lynch is a junior working on her economics major who recently completed a paid internship at the Food for Lane County Youth Farm. While it was a positive experience, Schandelmeier-Lynch acknowledged that she wouldn’t have been able to participate in the same way had it been an unpaid position.
“I was able to spend time outdoors, learn about something new and regularly meet and interact with positive people,” Schandelmeier-Lynch said. “If It were unpaid, I wouldn’t have been able to do it all.”
The job and careers section on UO’s website, which lists prospective job and internship opportunities for students, doesn’t include whether an internship is paid. This information is usually included in the fine print of an internship application.
Lorena Galvan, assistant director of the Lundquist College of Business Center Services, said there are multiple places students can look for information regarding paid internships.
“The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has some information that can help students understand internship expectations and requirements,” Galvan said. “Students can also reach out to their career services professionals for help identifying, evaluating and negotiating opportunities.”
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