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Preparation or predation? Students share their experiences with unpaid internships

November 15, 2018
<p>Maya Roberts poses for a photo in New York City. She worked an unpaid internship with fashion designer Tracy Reese. Photo by Shae Christian.</p>

Maya Roberts poses for a photo in New York City. She worked an unpaid internship with fashion designer Tracy Reese. Photo by Shae Christian.

When students take unpaid internships, some struggle to stay financially afloat, while others are fortunate enough to have financial support.

Building a resume through valuable experience at an internship is a necessity for students to thrive in their career. At the same time, unpaid internships can prevent students from prospering.

According to data from the 2018 Summer Internship survey by MSU, about 18 percent of students’ internships were unpaid.

Finding a new path through fashion

During the summer of 2017, apparel and textile design senior Maya Roberts lived in New York City as a fashion design intern for designer Tracy Reese. Networking helped her out, as she landed the job after attending a pop-up shop in Detroit, where she met Reese and asked about a potential internship.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” she said. “Then, a week after she told me that ‘You could come,’ I just got a ticket and went to New York.”

Her job was more than just creating a product to sell in a store. She described the work as “tedious and technical.”

Her duties consisted of handling tech packages, which are documents for manufacturers to construct a product. She would send packages to a manufacturing company in China. She also performed precise tasks like matching thread colors to send to the manufacturer. 

Interning for 40 hours a week prevented her from working another job to earn money. She depended on her savings, her parents and a budget plan.

“One of the biggest challenges is just trying to make a budget when you don’t have any money coming in,” she said.

Learning the ins and outs of the city was tough. Roberts stayed in East Harlem and commuted 30 minutes to work in the Garment District. She would take the subway and two trains. Her employer gave her a $5 daily stipend for her commute.

Unpaid internships can severely affect students who cannot rely on their family for financial support, she said. Some of her peers wanted to go home due to the stress of not having enough money. Roberts suggests interns save money and stick to a strict budget.

“You have to be really disciplined,” she said. “I would tell (interns) to make sure they have everything planned out in regards to money.”

Roberts’ internship did not count for school credit due to it being a last-minute opportunity, but it added experience to her resume. Considering her responsibilities, she said it was worth the experience despite not being paid. However, she is now thinking of going into a different creative field like architecture.

“I think looking at it and now I’m like, ‘I don’t know if that’s really what I want to do with my life,’” she said.

Experience matters more than money

This past summer, journalism senior Camille North interned for the creative art team at Hour Detroit Magazine in Troy, Michigan. Some tasks included preparing for photo shoots and graphic design.

When searching for an internship, she limited herself to areas near Grand Rapids and Detroit. She chose Hour Detroit because it’s close to her job in Lansing.

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“I do have a really good job here at Michigan State working at a bar,” North said. “It’s not related to my major but it brings the money. I need my income to pay for everything that I need.”

A workday typically began by fulfilling small needs from her boss such as sending mail, getting coffee or getting supplies for a shoot. In afternoons, she would help with content flow.

“It would just be kind of sitting around and being bored, which my bosses acknowledged and they would apologize,” North said. 

Her team filled time by looking up inspirations and possible layout designs. 

Each week, North would intern for 25 hours and bartend for 10 hours. She also managed to take three online classes. She attempted to juggle a third job, but ended up losing sleep.

She said multiplying her hours by a hypothetical hourly wage made her think about how much money she could have been earning. Although she would have rather been paid, she said it was worth connecting with people in different industries, from marketing and advertising to photography and design.

“I loved my bosses, I loved my job, I loved what I did,” North said. “That made it worth it not being paid.”

Staying afloat in New York City 

This past summer, marketing senior Rachel Yu worked in New York City as a wholesale intern for Alexandre Birman, a Brazilian footwear designer. She handled emails, uploaded photos to social media, analyzed sales trends on Excel and reached out to buyers for marketing.

Despite working without pay, she learned how a fashion retailer operated and how products are placed into stores like Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“It was really cool to see how those things work,” she said. “That is really valuable. I built a lot of clientele. It’s super useful for the future. When I’m looking for jobs, I can talk about it.”

Working about 45 hours a week, she did not have time to work another job. The company gave interns $20 each day for lunch.

Yu said living in NYC is expensive, as she spent around $6,000 on housing. She lived in the Chelsea neighborhood so she could walk to the office instead of paying for transportation.

To stay afloat, Yu relied on her parents and the money she earned while working as a teaching assistant on MSU’s campus. She said it’s harder for unpaid interns without financial support from their parents. Her advice is to save some money ahead of time to prepare for financial challenges.

Although working an unpaid internship can turn people away from a position, she said there is always someone who is willing to take the position.

Yu said unpaid internships are good depending on the work interns do for the company. She said her internship was productive and beneficial to her career.

Balancing internship with two jobs and classes

Psychology senior Ryan Jenkins interns for state Representative Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo. He began as a canvasser before transitioning to a position as a legislative intern.

During the summer, he worked around 20 to 25 hours a week. This semester, he works around six to 10 hours. As a legislative intern, he reads through emails from constituents in Hoadley’s district to figure out their complaints. He said solutions might involve policy research or reaching out to other representatives and  branches of government.

“We really do all the communication,” Jenkins said. “If you ever write your representative, it’s most likely an intern that you were communicating with the entire time, as opposed to the actual representative, even though it’s their signature. It’s interesting.”

Because Jenkins does research on HIV, he was attracted to Hoadley’s work on HIV legislation. He found the internship to be a resume builder and a pathway to the legal side of HIV-related work.

When working in Kalamazoo, he commuted from Lansing while taking classes and working a full-time job as a research assistant at MSU. Currently, he works around 20 hours doing research, 30 to 35 hours at a restaurant on the weekends and 10 to 15 hours at his internship.

“It was a big burden being a self-supporting first generation student,” Jenkins said. 

To support himself financially, he received an internship grant from MSU, but he only received $300. He spent an estimated $600 on gas alone during the summer, he said.

He recommends interns vocalize their struggles to their bosses.

 “My state representative gave me a financial award at the end of my internship on his campaign because he knew how much I was struggling to make ends meet,” Jenkins said. “You’re just working crazy long hours and I just have to be constantly on call. It’s very physically excruciating.”

Jenkins said unpaid internships are an unfair  way of clearing out the job pool because they’re more accessible to financially stable individuals, whereas lower-income people cannot afford to work unpaid. 

“I think it just weeds out poor kids and it definitely creates a racial bias, too,” he said. “Innately, people of color are going to be more disadvantaged than individuals who are privileged.”

Living with family in an expensive city

Arts and humanities senior Meghan Hollister interned at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She started this past June and finished in August. She applied to the museum to fulfill an interest in education and art.

“I thought that interning at a museum — working with kids and working with art education — would be a really great way for me to get experience,” Hollister said.

For 40 hours a week, Hollister assisted five different classes. She supervised about 200 kids to ensure punctuality and would help the lead instructor by getting supplies and guiding students as they made art.

Boston is an expensive city, she said. For support, she received an internship award through MSU to help buffer some costs. Housing costs weren’t a factor because she lived with her uncle, who resides near the city in Medford.

“I simply would not have been able to afford living in Boston by myself, just because they’re not paying me,” Hollister said.

She said the cost of commuting adds up. She took a bus to the subway and a pass was about $85 each month.

Hollister said the experience mattered more than being unpaid because she felt valued. She said some of her peers, struggled to pay school debt but needed the internship to build their resumes.

“I am one of the lucky ones to be able to afford to go on one of these (internships),” Hollister said. “But it’s also hard to forget that there’s so many folks who can’t afford to do that.”

Unpaid internships have a tough impact on students who are already struggling, she said. To an extent, she would like to see interns compensated for their work — even if it’s minimum wage, she said. Other improvements she suggested are providing struggling interns with more scholarships or stipends.

For unpaid interns struggling to get by, Hollister suggests getting creative with finding scholarships and grants and encourages interns to advocate for themselves.


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