Editorial: Internship inequality

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With summer approaching, one thought looms over many students’ minds — summer internships.

Summer internships differ depending on the size of a company, preparation of company departments and a need for incoming, loyal employees.

Students fight for the opportunity to be labeled as a summer intern to boost their résumés and LinkedIn profiles, regardless of whether the position is secretly the coffee-runner or the memo-filer.

There is a burdensome social expectation that by the time students graduate college, they should have lived in a metropolitan city for at least three months while having interned for at least two companies. Lehigh conducts countless résumé-building workshops, interview preparation opportunities and networking events, so students are almost guaranteed to be desired by these prestigious companies.

But, it is a problem when companies don’t necessarily think or care about paying their interns sufficiently, or at all.

Not all students have the financial ability to relocate or survive in an expensive city off a $10-per-hour wage or no regular income. Students who live in rural towns are not afforded nearly as many opportunities compared to students who live 20 minutes outside of New York City.

Living in the city is not only expensive but is nearly impossible with an internship that may not even compensate interns monetarily.

Herein lies the problem with internship inequality.

A student can apply to 100 internships and only hear back from three, and those three responses might not even come with an interview invitation. Usually, companies don’t even notify applicants that they are not interested in hiring them.

It is very difficult to get a foot in the door to competitive and desired companies that students all around the country, let alone Lehigh, are vying for. The competition has left students to rely on something that has become almost a requirement for landing an internship — personal connections.

Connections are a blessing for those who have them and a curse for those without them. Even with thousands of résumés in a pile, a connection can push a résumé to the forefront of the recruiting team’s attention.

Students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely be surrounded by  CEOs and company presidents, which leads to greater access to opportunities. Regardless of how qualified a candidate is, if they do not have a connection, it is likely that most opportunities are not accessible to them, because they don’t know the “right” people.

Utilizing connections is necessary more often than not. We live in a dog-eat-dog world. Not leveraging your advantages will put any student at a disadvantage, especially because those with connections will never stop using them.

Students are under such immense amounts of pressure to seem “perfect” to future employers that they will do anything they can to get ahead of their peers and stand out.

At Lehigh, students might even pay to work an internship. In order to receive credits from a company offering a for-credit-only summer internship, students at Lehigh must be enrolled in a course that, in addition to their internship duties, requires students to write a paper and pay $770 per credit.

This concept, which attempts to mitigate the prevalence of unpaid internships, actually results in students paying for their own labor.

Lehigh should not be charging students for working when the ultimate goal of having a summer internship is for them to be hired after graduation. Other institutions do not follow this practice.

Bucknell University offers financial support to students who receive internships in the non-profit or public service sectors and are not being paid by the company. This fund, while competitive is a gesture of encouragement.

University of Richmond carries out a similar practice by awarding fellowships to students with unpaid internships, averaging $3,700 per student. 

This type of financial assistance levels the playing field for people who do not have the monetary resources to take on an unpaid internship in New York City, Philadelphia or San Francisco.

While it is impossible to avoid the cut-throat nature of securing an internship, universities across the nation —including Lehigh — could implement programs that assist students in covering costs. College is about opportunity. The opportunity to expand your horizons. The opportunity to gain practical experience. The opportunity to lead a better life.

Unpaid or for-credit-only internships extinguish that opportunity, subtly reinforcing the notion that the “opportunity” to have real-world experience is only an opportunity for those whose families can afford to pay or have the connections to stand out in the first place.

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2 Comments

  1. Lehigh has you covered.

    You may want to check out the Iaccoca International Internship Program.

    These are fantastic opportunities, pay a small stipend, but cover your costs. These are also targeted to those on financial aid.

    If this does not work then meet people and sell yourself…

    Also, if you don’t come from a family with connections or have free room and board in a big city – leverage what you have. Create your own opportunity in your smaller town (or a town where grandparents/other relatives live) to work for someone who you do know or volunteering in a significant way at a non-profit.

    Not all good experience is Philly, NYC, etc and no one ever said you are partying and living with bros during an internship, and not all good work experience is at well known firms. Go door to door pitching your services in your local community and you will find/make an internship.

  2. Former For-Credit Intern on

    Internships for credit are a complete racket.

    Interns who work for credit are required, by the Fair Labor Standards Act, to glean educational value from their placements. In other words, they have to be doing something more substantive than filing papers and getting coffee. For the employer, that means that the intern is adding value. Yet the employer is not required to compensate the student. Fine, then the college or university should “pay” the student in course credit, not require the student to pay for the credits, in effect paying to work. I’d be more forgiving if the employer’s resources were stretched thin and couldn’t otherwise support bringing on an intern at $9 per hour, but I’ve interned for credit at two companies that could have afforded to pay their interns, but chose not to because they didn’t have to. The companies were cool and could have their pick of any intern they wanted—and the interns knew they were lucky to be there. Sure, paying for the credits was my admission ticket into a great internship experience and resume builder, but the employers were reaping significant benefits without having to pay a dime and the school was just raking in the tuition.

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