May 1, 2006

Students With Non-Paying Internships Face Dif?culties

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This is the first of two articles examining how students cope with the financial aspect of unpaid summer internships.

Sharmila Gordon ’06, who is interested in nonprofit work, had found the perfect summer internship: a position at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C., that would allow her to help inform homeless people of their voting rights and assist with compiling a statistical report on the capitol’s homeless population.

The catch? The internship did not pay.

Gordon, who had also enrolled Cornell’s Summer in Washington program, accepted the position anyway. Although Gordon receives financial aid and would have had to meet a summer savings expectation of $2,730, she decided to forgo money for professional experience, drawing on her savings to pay for rent, transportation and living expenses.

The next summer, Gordon got savvier.

Interested in interning at the American Civil Liberties Union, National Headquarters in New York City, she applied for funding through the competitive Cornell Urban Scholars Program, which paid for her housing in Manhattan and compensated her at $8.50 an hour.

“I definitely think there could be more done” to help Cornell students fund unpaid summer internships, Gordon said, recalling the stress of balancing financial obligations with her desire to gain practical experience. She felt that the financial aid office’s summer savings expectation was too high.

While Cornell’s Wall Street set typically earns the equivalent of an entry-level analyst’s salary during their summer internships, sometimes raking in upwards of $10,000, those pursuing less lucrative fields can receive paltry, and sometimes nonexistent, summer earnings.

Of the internships listed in The Princeton’s Review The Best 109 Internships, about 50 percent paid and 35 percent did not, with the remainder offering a small stipend. In the more comprehensive Vault Guide to Top Internships, 42 percent of internships paid, about 38 percent did not and about 20 percent offered small stipends.

Cornell does not formally collect statistics on where students intern and whether or not they are compensated for their work. A portion of undergraduates complete the optional online summer experience survey offered by Career Services, although this is not a formal, nor accurate, benchmark. The database shows that of the 765 students who submitted information for the summer of 2005, 556 (72.7 percent) received a paid wage or stipend, and 78 (10.2 percent) received no pay, with the remaining students entering no information on their wages.

Certainly more students receive pay for summer work than those who do not. Yet, for students interested in fields that typically pay little or not at all – nonprofits, government, publishing, journalism, fashion, entertainment and public affairs -“it’s definitely difficult,” said Lisa Harris, director of Arts and Sciences Career Services.

Harris said she has noticed an increase in the number of employers offering interns credit rather than pay.

“There aren’t as many obvious financial assistance programs for unpaid internships,” she said.

Harris advises students interested in publishing, journalism and law; fields in which all but the most competitive internships pay little or nothing at all.

Diane Miller, assistant director of Arts and Sciences Career Services, advises students interested in public relations, marketing and advertising; sectors which seldom pay interns.

Miller said there is a lack of funding on campus for students pursuing internships.

“What is out there through the university is really tied to work study funding,” she said. “There’s a little bit of funding for a couple of students for unpaid internships, but it’s scarce.”

Financial aid recipients must meet a summer savings expectation of $2,060 their first summer, $2,600 their second, $2,730 their third and $2,910 their fourth. According to Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis, these figures are fairly standard at private universities, and rise about two to three percent each year to adjust for inflation. He said internships had never been a factor in determining the summer savings expectation, and that a change due to the prevalence of unpaid internship opportunities was unlikely.

“The basic premise is … that most students have mid-May to mid-August – 12 weeks to work – and with those three months they have the opportunity to make some money to help contribute to their cost of education,” Keane said. “… We encourage people to get a paid internship rather than an unpaid internship.”

Keane said that students who could not meet their summer savings expectation could complete an application at the beginning of the school year for a summer savings expectation adjustment, which increases their loan amount. 5 percent of financial aid recipients – nearly 2,000 students in each class receive financial aid – did so last summer.

“It’s not a great alternative, not the best at all, but it does provide a way for students on financial aid to think more easily about internships,” Keane said.

Rebecca Sparrow, director of Cornell Career Services said she thinks summer savings expectations are “ambitious.”

“It’s challenging and the real impact of that is that it puts the focus so much on the pay rate of the experience rather than the value itself. In some fields it’s [the summer savings expectation] very, very realistic,” but for many, it is not, Sparrow continued.

“I think if you’re interested in a field where paid internships are rare, you need to get experience by being involved in clubs, study abroad opportunities and volunteer work during the year,” said Bill Alberta, a Career Services advisor for students interested in government, public service and nonprofits.

Miller said she encourages students to seek outside grants or scholarships to fund unpaid work, though some of the deadlines for those programs expire before students receive internships.

“Those two timelines don’t necessarily mesh,” Miller said. “But push comes to shove, I tell students they might need to negotiate maybe working 30 hours a week, say, at an advertising agency, and picking up another job that’s paid, maybe waiting tables or bartending, something that’s going to bring in money … we have a lot of students who work multiple jobs.”

Enoch Chu ’06, who interned with the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders the summer after his freshman year, had to take on a paid job with a lobbying firm, working 15 hours per week in addition to the weekly 40 hours required of his unpaid internship.

“What I found out early that summer was that almost all government internships … are almost always unpaid,” Chu said. “I know a lot of people who had second jobs … that paid, but one thing that you need to prepare yourself for is that you might have to work an extra 15 or 20 hours a week.”

Chu felt that for committed students, “working those extra hours is not a huge burden.”

Last summer, Chu applied to a scholarship geared toward Asian-American students interested in government in order to fund his internship on Capitol Hill.

“I think for students who make a commitment to go into a nonprofit sector, it’s a really good experience trying to find funding and seeing how you can work through it,” he said. “You have to make double the effort to make sure you get funding to go an expensive city like Washington. You’re going to have to make a sacrifice.”

Dan Zarrow ’06, who had an unpaid internship at NBC-10 TV station in Philadelphia two summers ago, commuted to his internship two hours each way from his home in New Jersey three days a week, and worked 35 to 40 hours per week at Six Flags.

“It got tiring,” said Zarrow, who is majoring in atmospheric science and hopes to be a television weather forecaster.

“I think that [meeting the summer savings expectation is] feasible. I understand that my business is very unique … and a lot of people do get paid [over the summer],” he said. He added that outside funding for those pursuing broadcast careers was “unheard of,” and that part-time, unpaid internships were the industry standard, which left him enough time to work for pay.

Yet not all unpaid internships allow for a part-time commitment, and those who intern away from home in costly urban areas, where many of the top fashion, communications and government internships are located, may find this financial maneuvering difficult.

“$2,000 is not bad for most people, but a lot of people who pursue more lucrative internships make significantly more than $2,000, and a lot working for nonprofits won’t have the chance to make any money,” Chu said. “That $2,000 when you get your financial aid package does not say anything about what you’re interested in, what you want to do … it’s kind of impersonal.”

Archived article by Maya Rao
Sun Staff Writer