I remember jumping up and down with joy when I found out that I had gotten an internship in Congress. As a first-generation college student who immigrated from Colombia as a little kid, this was big moment for me and my family. But soon after, that joy turned in worries about finances. That year my dad had made $15k and my scholarship wasn’t enough to cover my living expenses. What ended up happening was I interned 25 hours/week, worked a paid job 20 hours/week and took 16 credits as a 17-year-old. Most days I fought to stay awake at my internship. It’s because of my experience that I fight so that other people don’t have to go through what I did. The wealth of your parents shouldn’t preclude from great internship opportunities.
I'm a first-generation transfer student at American University. I came here after graduating community college. When I got to AU, I felt this immense pressure to intern because it's the norm for every student here, but I soon realized I just couldn't afford to not work or to intern for free. During my time here I have shut down the part of me that wishes to intern. I’ve comforted myself by planning to save up money so it can be something that I can afford before I graduate next December. I work 35 hours a week as a nanny, and I am a full time student, so I just can't imagine interning for free. It's not an option at all. But I do know that once I graduate, employers might ding me for not having enough “work experience” in what I majored in. As a student, I I shouldn’t have to choose between one or the other.
I am currently doing my third unpaid internship on the Hill, and it has certainly been an arduous process. I have had to work two paid jobs to be able to afford to take these unpaid internships. This manifests in me working 9 AM-12 AM 2-3 days a week, not even including school. In addition to the physical and mental strain, the culture on college campuses is often derisive to students who choose these schedules. Students are skeptical of poor students trying to succeed through the same avenues necessary for non-poor students. Between exhaustion and isolation, accepting an unpaid internship again and again has taken an immeasurable toll on me.
My commitment to public service is fueled by a strong belief in the virtues of justice and fairness. I was fortunate to gain experience in public service through an internship at the White House, but as a low-income student I used over $5,000 in student loans to access my unpaid internship. President Obama once said, 'America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny,' which is why I support Pay Our Interns.
I remember printing out the acceptance letter from the White House. It felt bitter sweet being accepted into the program that I had been vying for since my freshman year of college. Sadly I had to say no. My parents had taken on enough debt for me to go to school. I couldn't look them in the eyes and ask them to take out more debt so that I could intern for free. It has been two years since I said no. I'll be honest, I look at that letter from time to time. I feel a sense of regret and shame, and wonder what could have happened if I had interned at the White House.
I used to be an unpaid intern, and I pay my own rent, so I interned 20 hours a week and worked 20 hours on top of a full courseload. I could only work weekends, so I worked the 7-3 shift at a hotel Saturday and Sunday and then had class or my internship five days a week. One time a guest called and had left something in their room, which is a typical request, so I went to grab it. I was so tired that I found it and then took a fifteen-minute nap on their stripped bed. I just told my boss that it took that long to find.
The summer after my freshman year, I couldn't find any paid internships, so I went back home and worked three jobs (about 70 hours per week) instead of doing anything connected to my field.
The following summer, I applied for the Koch Internship Program (KIP) and was accepted at Reason Magazine. This was about $15 an hour, including being paid for time learning economics. So I had real-world experience at my internship, very solid pay, and formal education all packed into one program.
Between my experience at CKI, Reason, Fox, MPI, and with a title on a feature documentary being released on PBS, paid internships paved the way to my success in the fields of video and liberty today.
Matthew Officer is a recent graduate from American University where he studied X. During his time at AU he held internships at the Woodrow Wilson Center, US Department of Commerce, and the DC Credit Union. Though one semester was particularly tough where he juggled 5 classes, his internship at the prestigious Wilson center, and two part-time jobs at We the Pizza and Sushi Capitol. While everyone should admire Matt's hard work, the sad reality is that many students share the same experience as Matt and have to take on jobs at restaurants while also interning. Upon graduation, Matt secured a Job at Northwestern Mutual and is currently working towards going back to AU for his graduate degree.
Krystal Leaphart is a passionate leader and emerging champion for intersectional racial justice. Originally from Detroit MI, she moved to Washington DC to pursue a degree in Sociology from Howard University. She served as the Chief of Staff for IMPACT, a nonprofit that fosters civic engagement, political involvement and economic empowerment for young professionals of color.
Her work experience includes the NAACP Washington Bureau, Office of Congressman John Conyers, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rigths Under Law, DC Office of Human Rights and Operation Understanding DC.
Reflecting on her unpaid internship experiences, Krystal said that "over the years, I have had 5 unpaid internships. If I was paid 12.00 dollars an hour for my labor I would have the 18,000 dollars to pay my 17,000 debt to Howard University."