By Nick Batson & Arielle Dollinger
Alexandra Blum, a senior majoring in sign language at Keuka College, located in upstate New York, has completed three “field periods” throughout her college career. And she is not finished.
The school requires all students, Blum said, to complete four 140-hour “field periods” over their four years at the institution, as well as one 360-hour field period during the semester prior to graduation.
What Keuka College calls “field periods,” others call internships. The three internships that Blum has completed have been unpaid.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone getting a paid internship [at Keuka College],” Blum said.
And Blum is not swimming alone in the unpaid internship pool. According to a July 2011 article in Business Insider, 50 percent of internships in the United States are unpaid. Of that 50 percent, some 18 percent of interns receive no college credit for their work.
By the standards of the United States Department of Labor, six criteria must be met for an unpaid internship to be considered legal: the internship must be similar to training given in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern, the intern cannot displace a current employee, the employer can receive no immediate advantage from the intern, the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship period and both the intern and employer must understand that no wages are guaranteed.
Barbara Selvin, an assistant professor at Stony Brook University and internship coordinator of the university’s School of Journalism, said she feels that the unpaid internship phenomenon is “a really unfortunate development.”
“Unpaid internships are an important part of professional development now,” Selvin said. “Internships in general, whether paid or unpaid, have become a necessity for any kind of media industry.”
With the current economy, she does not expect that to change any time soon.
The unfortunate part, Selvin said, is that many students are forced to forego opportunities because of cost. Unpaid internships, she explained, come with a discrimination factor — they favor people with money who can afford to work for no pay.
Selvin has seen a very slight increase in stipends paying for transportation. The Stony Brook School of Journalism Alumni Association recently set up a need-based program that offers students $500 grants to cover transportation costs.
Students like Blum worry they do not have much choice but to work without pay.
“I feel like the job market is so competitive now that you definitely need one, or more than one,” Blum said. “When you’re at an internship, you’re making all these connections with people, you get your name out there, and you’re learning how to do their job the right way.”
David O’Connor, a senior at Stony Brook University, is working this summer as an unpaid intern with Congressman Tim Bishop’s re-election campaign.
“I think that, for the intern, it provides the hands-on experience that you can’t get in school,” said O’Connor, a journalism major. “An internship places you in something like a test-run for the field you want to go into one day. You get to see how much you enjoy or hate it and where you need to improve.”
Jacob Golan, a junior at Duke University, has done his time as both a paid and unpaid intern. He sees much value in internships, and that he learns more by interning than he does by going to class.
“You learn nothing practical from college classes,” Golan said.
The Long Island native recently completed work as an unpaid intern for a Brazilian NGO. As an unpaid intern, he said he felt taken advantage of because of his eagerness to help.
“Internships should be seen as a partnership,” Golan said. “The company is investing in you as much as you are investing in them.”
But he did not hesitate to say that he would take another unpaid internship “because it’s necessary.”
Golan left the Brazil NGO to work for a different organization after having an argument with one of his supervisors. The intern asked for four days off, and “there was a fight.”
According to Blum, an internship can be a positive or negative experience.
One summer, she interned at a middle school under a teacher who “didn’t really want to be a mentor.” Blum felt like she was not learning or improving.
“You might have a good supervisor, you might not, but my school’s preparing you for when you have a bad one,” Blum said. “You have to be creative and try to learn different because sometimes mentors just don’t care and just don’t have time for a college student.”
However, her other internship experiences have been positive.
“They’ve been really accepting of me wanting to learn,” she said.
Some interns appear to be more disgruntled than others. Xuedan Wang is one unpaid intern who decided to sue her employer.
As reported by The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog in February 2012, Wang interned for fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar and filed a lawsuit in February against the Hearst Corporation, the magazine’s parent company. Wang accused the magazine of taking advantage of her, permitting her to work full-time for no pay.
According to the Times’ piece, some companies use interns to do the jobs of regular, paid workers, rather than making an effort to truly educate the students. But most students, the article states, are too afraid to report such incidents.