Mandy Dutton, a sophomore at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City, is a busy young woman: She's taking 20 credits at school, and working 20 hours a week as an intern at a New York City fashion magazine. And although she's so involved with filing, photocopying and performing other administrative tasks that she can barely take a lunch break, she actually doesn't earn a cent.
To make money, she travels four hours by bus to her hometown every other weekend and works as a health-care aide, a job she's had for three years.
"It's frustrating because I work during the week, and then I go home and work the entire weekend," she says.
Still, Dutton feels she doesn't have much of a choice. She does the health-care job because she needs to earn money, and views her unpaid internship as critical for her career.
"If I don't do it, that could hurt my chances getting a job," she explains, since she'll be competing against people who did not have to work for money and could just do back-to-back internships.
While students from affluent families may be more easily able to build their résumé through unpaid jobs, even those who can't really afford them are finding ways to make them work. That's because, like Dutton, students are aware of the critical importance that internships provide.
In many fields these days, the "demand for entry-level jobs is greater than the availability of them, and internships have become a prerequisite of getting a job," says Gina Neff, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and editor of Surviving the New Economy.
This is particularly true in glamorous industries, such as publishing, public relations, advertising and broadcasting. For some, that "prerequisite" creates a huge burden.
According to Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University, the pressure to complete multiple internships before graduating from college puts students who are not financially privileged at a big disadvantage. "If you're working your butt off to pay off student loans, then doing unpaid internships is not an option," the NYU sociolgy professor says, adding that this just compounds the sense of inequality.
He believes that — financial considerations aside — privileged students are better off because they often have connections that are informally created through family and friends. "Nonprivileged students don't have the ease of their dad being good friends with the local congressman or the owner of a big business."
Whether or not internships are worth the sacrifice they may entail really remains a matter of debate. Some involve merely doing grunt work to the point where the experience is not really valuable to the student's education.
Be Careful Out There!
"It's buyer beware," warns Neff. "Students need to be really careful. They need to ask hard questions and make sure they will be getting a good experience they can benefit from."
According to Robert Franek, spokesperson at the Princeton Review, an increasing number of schools require students to take some kind of internship course during their junior or senior academic year. So even if the students aren't getting paid, they actually earn credit for all their time and hard work.
"Internships expose you to something while you are still in undergrad that you would never ever want to do after graduating," says Franek.
"Students and parents need to focus on the experience that they are getting, not necessarily the money," he adds.
According to Trudy Steinfeld, executive director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University, some schools are starting to offer stipends to select students who cannot afford to do unpaid internships. They usually range from between $1,000 and $2,000 for a semester — or about four months — and even though a student could probably earn more bartending or waitressing, it's still a sum of money going back into a young person's pocket.
Steinfeld tells students who are unable to afford the unpaid internships to try and balance schoolwork and internships, or to work during the summer to save money so that they can do their internships during the school year.
Others say that it's important to make sure that internship opportunities are available to all students, and not just a privileged few. One way to do that is for schools to offer a bigger pot of funds students can apply for.
"One of the questions we need to ask ourselves is how can we support a diversity of voice," acknowledges Neff.
For instance, she says: "We need to make sure that there are programs to support people who are trying to break into careers at the very earliest levels."