Opinion | Unpaid internships are a privilege

Zach Davis,
Opinions Editor
@zachmdavis

As I sat among my fellow Panthers this past week, I anxiously awaited the question some of us dread: “What did you do over the summer?”

Just as I’d suspected, most of the students around me said that they had spent their days working at a competitive internship, which is an unspoken requirement for most college students. The newly minted workers filled the room with stories of their life-changing experiences and discussed how their summers helped them make connections and gain workplace experience. There was chatter about impressing bosses, working into the late hours of the night and being included on top priority emails.

As I listened to the stories, I couldn’t help but feel envious, even resentful, towards the students who could take unpaid internships. I was jealous of students who were privileged enough to work for free.

I didn’t have an internship this summer. I wasn’t able to have one – I couldn’t afford to.

I’m not going to pretend that I am a broke, starving student – I’m not. That would be unfair to the increasing number of college students who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or who are living on the streets in order to afford their education. I’m nowhere near that status and I’m thankful. But I’m also not privileged enough to spend my summer working every day for experience and experience alone.

I had to spend my summer working a job that would help me pay my rent for the upcoming semester, which left little time to make connections at a place that didn’t compensate me for my time and energy. While I don’t regret working over the summer, I’m envious of those who had internships and am now nervous that I wasn’t able to acquire a career-enhancing experiences like some of my peers. How is it fair that they are able to advance their career, when I can’t simply because I can’t afford it?

I know paid internships are available, but as some of us know, they’re extremely competitive. Despite days of scouring the internet for potential leads, I was unable to snatch an internship that was both paid and related to my future career. So I couldn’t have an amazing internship. Honestly, that sucks.

My situation is just one example of how unpaid internships are unjust for students of lower socio-economic status. There are so many students like me who won’t get that “life-altering” summer internship that helps them land their dream job. Students who are able to take on unpaid internships are essentially paying for experience that qualifies them to advance their career. For the rest of us – we don’t get that opportunity to buy experience.

Will I be at a disadvantage because I’m not financially stable enough to work for free? It’s very possible. If that proves to be the case, I demand change.