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Unpaid internships: Scam or starting point?

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Unpaid internships: Scam or starting point?

Would you work for no money? 

I asked my mom this morning and she texted back “I could not do that. I have bills,” and then, after about two minutes of what I assume was her carefully combing through Apple’s extensive emoji catalog, she sent the eye-roll emoji. 

You should roll your eyes. We all need an income. With the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders came an increased national awareness of wealth inequality. Massive corporations will have their feet in the fire until they provide liveable wages to their employees. 

Within this new chapter of the labor movement, you’d expect any company offering no pay for employee work to be scrutinized into bankruptcy. Yet, the notorious unpaid internship defies these expectations. For these internships to exist, students buy into one important notion: experience is more valuable than money. 

At first glance, this is a scam. Receiving nothing for your labor to gain an experience that may or may not help you land the slightly more appealing job just seems like a fun way to trick the young working class. 

Moriah Draper, president of the Young Democrats at the UW, would agree.  

“We’re giving in a lot of time and energy and work and we deserve to be compensated for that,” Draper said. “They get people ready to devote everything they have to whomever they’re working for.”

This point resonated with me. What experience could be worth more than the U.S. dollar? And for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, how could that experience be more valuable than providing for themselves or others? 

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 43% of U.S. interns go unpaid. Aside from the fact that 43% is staggeringly high, this proves that there are people signing up for this kind of work. This raises the obvious first question: Was the experience worth it?  

Surprisingly, Makenna Fojas, who interned as an event planner for the Walla Walla Movie Crush, a film festival in Walla Walla, Washington, said it was absolutely worth it.   

“The film industry kinda sucks in a lot of ways,” Fojas said. “Going to Walla Walla validated my passion for [film] and how there are really amazing people in the industry who are looking out for me.”

John Kwakye, who interned at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, had a similarly impactful experience.   

“Every day I am just on calls, working with people who are applying for TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] or HEN [Housing and Essential Needs],” Kwakye said. “It’s a very eye-opening experience that everyone should do … It builds empathy.”

Although Fojas and Kwakye weren’t paid, they don’t appear to be preparing for a lifelong devotion to the bourgeoisie. For Fojas, the film festival validated her passion for film and Kwakye’s internship showed him the process of social work “from beginning to end.” 

After our conversations, I quickly realized my initial reaction was unsubstantiated. To paint an opportunity that millions of students readily take as something that is wholly bad is a hasty generalization. 

If you have the ability, time, and resources, these internships can be impactful and enlightening. But, still, it never hurts to get some cash, too.

Reach contributing writer Charlie Darnall at Twitter: @charlied1211

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Nice work Charlie!

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