By: Trisha McCullough
As a first-generation college student, my expectations for college were largely based on the media I consumed. Movies and TV shows in the early 2000s shaped my vision on what to expect but I quickly found out that 1: we are no longer living in 2004 and 2: movies are not good portrayals of reality. I am embarrassed to admit that I often equated an internship to what I had seen for too long. I imagined the broke college student, grabbing coffee and working long hours in the name of education and experience. I thought of Anne Hathaway’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada”, Andy, working a job she hated, doing things she hated and definitely didn’t go to school for. I imagined situations like Rachel Greene’s in “Friends”, where she takes a fashion job only to end up sorting hangers and getting coffee for little to no money. All in the name of education and experience. Of course, internships look much different twenty years or so later but how much have they really changed?
The fashion and trends may have changed but unpaid internships haven’t shown the same growth unfortunately. There are more protections put in place than our parents would’ve seen but unpaid internships are still alive and thriving. They are touted as a way to gain experience while obtaining college credits, which is great because college students need both, right? It turns out that college students need a little more than just experience and college credit.
I’m not the first person to suggest unpaid internships are unethical or should be stopped. There have been years of debate on what the right answer is. The truth is that unpaid internships can absolutely work well for some students, but the reality is there are far more that get left behind when they are unable to take unpaid internships. Setting aside the shocking revelation that a student is forced to pay for their internship in the form of tuition while also providing hours and hours of free labor, unpaid internships exclude students that simply just cannot afford that opportunity.
America’s wage gap has only grown in the last twenty years. Even attending college has become a privilege that many cannot afford. With the high price tags and time away from a paying job, too many are already left out of the experience entirely. If they manage to overcome that obstacle, then they are forced to choose between that experience and those credits and paying their bills. What about untraditional students? The parents, older individuals, online students, how do they fare? Turns out they are usually in the same boat. Without a savings safety net or taking out massive amounts of cost-of-living loans there is just no way they could afford to attend school and work an unpaid job, often full time. That excludes just about everyone who is not a younger student who comes from a more affluent family. So, are those students the only ones who are entitled to that experience?
Of course, taking an unpaid internship is not the only options for students, myself included, but it begs the questions, why do they even still exist? College is already hard and outrageously expensive. It is no longer something we can just work a summer to pay for but a tens of thousands of dollar investment. We are seeing more and more untraditional students and many more who financially strapped by their decision to attend. Unpaid internships are not only unethical for demanding free work, but they create a divide in affluent students and those who can’t afford that experience. It’s 2021, college should be more inclusive. At the end of the day, we are all paying for the education. We shouldn’t be forced to pay for the experience as well.