Internships Favor the Wealthy

Rina Cakrani, Opinion Columnist

As summer approaches, we students often talk with one another about our plans and how we are going to be productive during summer. Of course, the topic of internships comes up because every college student knows that a diploma is not enough — you must have off-campus work experiences and the fancier they sound, the better it is. However, we have to admit that not everyone is at the same starting point and underprivileged students or students that do not have the financial means to support themselves during these mostly unpaid internships are unable to pursue the same career opportunities as their richer classmates.

Free labor saves companies a lot of money; therefore, companies offer unpaid internship programs in order to recruit young students who are capable of doing the job, while offering students only the value of their internship experience as compensation. While companies are extensively using this free labor, they see themselves as generously providing young people with valuable experience that they can then use to get a good job in the industry. Unfortunately, in today’s America, experience does not pay the bills and although one might be lucky enough to get some free food during an internship or even a small stipend, it is certainly not enough to survive on.

Neglecting to compensate interns financially is rather exclusionary and puts people from low income families at a significant disadvantage in the job market. One can only work for free if they have significant financial support behind them. That is not an issue for kids from wealthy families. Kids from privileged financial backgrounds rely on their parents to keep them fed, housed and transported while they intern for free during the summer.

Illustration by Sylvie Corwin

But what is a kid from a low-income family supposed to do in such a situation? The greatest problem that arises from unpaid internships is the barrier they place in front of economically disadvantaged students who simply can’t afford to take them. The fanciest internships are usually in expensive locations like New York City and Washington D.C., and it is impossible for college students to afford the high cost of living that is present in these cities. Therefore, it is clear that unpaid internships give an implicit advantage to wealthier students who can afford to go spend a summer doing unpaid work and not worry about living expenses.

This is not the same for less privileged kids who can’t even afford to spend the work day interning for no pay because they need to spend that time making money to support themselves. And even if they can still work a part time job on the side while interning, it can be hard to find a flexible job that will allow them to support themselves. The issue is even worse for international students, most of whom cannot afford to live in another city on their own if they don’t have some support from the school. They are unable to find a part-time service job to sustain themselves because legally they are not allowed to work off-campus in any place that is not associated to their home school. And if they land a paid internship in their field of study, there are a lot of legal barriers they have to overcome in order to be approved to receive money from an American company or institution.

I know that taking an unpaid internship is out of the question for many college students across America. In order to overcome this problem, I think it is important for colleges to provide support for students who desire to take such positions, but are held back by financial or other considerations. They should make internships an accessible option for financially disadvantaged students who have a lot of potential but cannot always realize that potential due to financial hardships.