Grace Sun / The Highlander

As a college student, in order to gain certain skills and experience, it is typically necessary to obtain an internship within one’s chosen field. Internships can be a good way of dipping your toes into the mercurial ocean of today’s job market, provide experience to put on your resume and help you form connections within the industry. They can be beneficial in many ways, but they also demand a lot of time, commitment and effort from students – while often being unpaid.

Close to half of all internships in the U.S. are unpaid, placing low-income students in a difficult position. There are two options: Land a fancy unpaid internship in hopes of getting something good to put on a resume or get a job that may not be in your field. Some students, however, try to juggle both, and spend their summer exhausted and on the verge of burnout. There are no real good solutions. A majority of college students can’t afford to work for free in this economy, putting them at a disadvantage to their wealthier peers who can afford to commit the time and effort most internships demand. As a result, higher-income students have more opportunities to network and secure a job after graduating. As for lower-income students, even if they are on the same level, they are left a hole in their resume that their peers don’t have.

Not only do unpaid internships exacerbate inequality, but they are also inherently exploitative. Instead of paying an employee for their labor, it is cheaper for companies to dump trivial tasks onto college students trying to establish themselves. It is deplorable to expect a college student to work for free, and in many instances, the unpaid internships tend to be rather menial and simple such as filing paperwork and getting coffee. These are not exactly skills that provide a student with valuable experience. Meanwhile, there are also companies that overwork their unpaid interns, hiding behind the excuse that they are providing these interns “experience,” but experience won’t pay the bills.

Paid internships fix many of these problems. Low-income students are not left in a hard spot trying to choose between gaining valuable experience or a livelihood. Plus, if companies pay interns, they will be forced to treat them like actual employees, making it harder for interns to be exploited. If interns get paid, then organizations will have to assign them actual meaningful work that helps gain valuable skills, instead of throwing meaningless busywork at them. There’s a benefit for the organizations and companies that pay interns too – they’re more likely to get interns who work hard, instead of interns frustrated with the notion that they should work for nothing.

The problem lies in the fact that a majority of unpaid internships come from underfunded nonprofits and public institutions that typically cannot afford to pay interns. This is where universities can step up. UC Riverside, for instance, provides major-specific academic advisors that can help students find and match with an internship. There are also additional resources through the Academic Resource Center where career advisors can help with the internship hunt. Riverside does offer many major-specific stipends and fellowships that students can apply for to support themselves while working an unpaid internship. 

These aids are beneficial, but imperfect. Academic and career advisors are often spread thin among numerous students, with their appointment calendars fully booked. The stipends also have certain requirements and can be competitive, requiring students to write essays or complete extra work in order to prove the sincerity of their worth. While UC Riverside has a system in place to help students navigate the complex jungle of internship hunting, there are still steps that can be taken to make them more accessible to all students. Internships can be tricky to endeavor on, but the right kind of internships – paid ones, that allow students to pursue work meaningful to their chosen field and make connections within their professional field – can be an invaluable experience.