Unpaid internships: a necessary evil

Lu Han/Staff
Lu Han/Staff
Lu Han/Staff

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Every conversation I’ve had in the last month goes something like this:

“Are you excited to graduate?” Yes and no, I reply, with the bittersweet nostalgia of any student who must say goodbye to Berkeley.

“What will you do afterward?” I’ll be interning at a newspaper in Southern California, for which my family is very thankful.

“Is it a paid internship?” Yes, for which I am very, very thankful.

“Wow, you’re lucky.” I know.

As droves of students across the country prepare to enter the real world, the scene looks akin to a marathon — except those with internships start the race 10 feet ahead, and at the finish line lies gainful employment. But as we all know, internship experience can come at a cost.

Unpaid internships have become a norm across the employment spectrum. At one point, they were only found in industries like film, which college graduates could only dream of breaking into.

Now, it’s come to a point where I’m told I’m lucky for finding any sort of paid internship — especially one in journalism. The thing is, I don’t think I would have gotten that internship without an unpaid internship I took last fall semester, and there are consequences I’ve yet to pay for that one.

Last fall, while at the San Francisco Chronicle, I was known as the “academic intern from Berkeley.” No one in the newsroom was surprised that I was from Berkeley given the fact that a good chunk of the staff are alumni, but what stood out to me was the fact that “academic” was always tied to my title as an intern.

Federal labor standards mandate that unpaid interns receive training similar to what would be given in an educational environment and benefit as a result. In addition, employers cannot seek to gain advantage from their unpaid interns or use them in lieu of paid employees. That academic descriptor starts to make a lot of sense given those regulations.

My two days a week at the Chronicle were busy. I was there from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. writing, reporting and editing most days, and I spent 45 minutes on BART each way into and out of the city. This fast-paced, stressful experience was probably the most valuable training I’ve gotten. I learned firsthand what these reporters I’ve read and respect do on a daily basis, and the guidance I received from my editor both before and after I turned in my stories all helped me become a better reporter. I’m also fairly certain I wouldn’t have gotten other internships — paid ones — had I not spent this time developing my skills and getting articles published.

However, even though this was only two days a week, my class schedule kept me busy enough for the other five. I didn’t have time to continue my campus job, so in order to make sure I could keep paying rent and afford the $15 a week I was spending on BART travel, I expanded my federal subsidized loan amount by a few thousand dollars. I don’t have to worry about paying interest now, but not too long from now, it’ll be no laughing matter.

No one, not even the U.S. government, keeps track of how many unpaid internships are available to college students these days, but suffice it to say the number is staggering. Still, with the race to find jobs — and hopefully, careers — so competitive, there will be no shortage of applicants for these potentially dangerous internships.

Like most students, I’ve got debt — more so than had I not taken that unpaid internship — but with employers becoming increasingly less willing to hire graduates who have no practical experience, what choice did I have? What choice is there?

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