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The cost of experience: students reflect on unpaid summer internships

Unpaid internships, while having their perks, have been an added weight on Howard University students trying to advance their careers.

Unpaid internship illustration by Ixele Akinmowo-Simon.

Internships have become a common rite of passage for many college students seeking to gain experience in their field of study. However, as Howard students begin to navigate the competitive job market, many are faced with the decision to take on unpaid internships in hopes of acquiring real-world experience before entering the workforce.

The National Survey of College Internships (NCSI) 2021 data presents 67.9 percent of students apply for internships to gain experience and knowledge in their academic or career fields. Sixty percent of internships are paid in the U.S., as reported by CNBC, leaving approximately 40 percent unpaid. However, many students still take on unpaid internships as a learning opportunity.

Kristin Chance, a senior human performance major from Raleigh, North Carolina, decided to take an unpaid internship working with occupational, physical and speech therapists at UNC Rex Healthcare this summer to learn more about a career in occupational therapy. 

For Chance, an unpaid internship was one of the only options available to her as an undergraduate student in the occupational therapy field. “Based on my educational level, the only opportunities available to me, as far as I’m aware, are unpaid,” Chance said. 

Despite not being paid, “It’s been fun,” Chance said. “I spend most of my time with the occupational therapist (OT), so I’m able to observe a day in a life as an OT. I sit in on appointments, meet patients and sometimes clean up behind the therapists as they often have back-to-back appointments. It’s been great seeing what my future career could look like.” 

Melodic Watson-Davis, a junior political science major, was having trouble finding a summer internship. So, her mentor got her an unpaid opportunity in the office of Mayor Van Johnson, the mayor of her hometown of Savannah, Georgia.

Melodic Watson-Davis (left) with the grandmother of Juneteenth Dr. Opal Lee (middle) and Ashka Hankerson (right), special projects coordinator for the city of Savannah, as Lee receives the key to the city in June 2023. Participants of the City of Savannah unpaid internship program attend events as such and follow up by writing a memorandum. Other responsibilities include assisting staff with research & administrative duties. (Photo courtesy of Melodic Watson-Davis)

“I had applied to over 12 internships and had no luck getting into one. My mentor has the mayor’s personal contact. He contacted him for me after I told him [about] my troubles. The experience was fine. I was able to meet some great people. I think it would have been great to be paid for it,” Watson-Davis said.

Adjoua Ehoussou, a senior biology major from Decatur, Georgia, completed an unpaid internship last summer at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

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“It was a Pre-Med Enrichment Program,” Ehoussou said “I attended seminars, took classes for material on the MCAT, practiced suturing, learned tips on having good mental health, learned about different specialties, teamwork activities, the importance of diversity and unlearning biases when entering the medical field. I value the experience that came with the internship and I made invaluable connections that I will forever be grateful for.”

Adjoua Ehoussou at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in Summer 2022. Ehoussou participated in the Pre-Med Enrichment Program (PREP), a 5-week intensive summer program that allows students to enhance their chances of being accepted into medical school.

While unpaid internships can be beneficial for students seeking to gain experience, they can also contribute to financial insecurity.

A study conducted by Lending Tree found that 47 percent of unpaid interns took on debt to complete their internship; the study found that Black and Latinx unpaid interns were more likely than their white peers to do so. Watson-Davis and Ehoussou shared that they both experienced some level of financial stress.

“The sacrifice I had to make was scrambling for the funds to make it possible. It’s not easy and can be quite stressful,” Ehoussou said about managing expenses while completing her unpaid internship.

According to the Lending Tree study, 60 percent of unpaid interns had to work a second job to make ends meet. Watson-Davus also took on this burden.

“Being unpaid places an additional burden not just on me, but my family as well. I have to cut my hours at my paying job to partake in the internship,” Watson-Davis said.

Many internships offer students other benefits for their work and can even be eligible for credit through colleges and universities. Fortunately, Chance said she may be able to use the hours she worked at her internship when applying to future graduate school programs. 

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Even though Chance, Watson-Davis and Ehoussou did not find their internships through Howard, there are several resources on campus to aid students in finding internships. Other options may be found through individual schools and colleges.

Imara Moore, a junior journalism major from Portland, Oregon, said she found her summer internship through a channel made for School of Communications (SOC) students on Slack, an app used for professional and organizational instant messaging.

Imana Moore and Rebecca Smith, reporter and producer, working in the KBIA radio in Columbia, MO. The Missouri School of Journalism Fellowship Program includes a $4,500 stipend, housing in a University of Missouri residence hall, travel support, and one hour of research credit.

 “I’m one of four selected for the HBCU Journalism Research Fellowship at the University of Missouri. I’m a general assignment reporter for the Columbia Missourian, a daily print newspaper in town, and I take a news reporting class as a part of the program too,” Moore said. “I found this internship through the SOC Slack channel at Howard. I was interested in applying and then I talked to Professor Ingrid Sturgis about applying and she encouraged me to.”

The Center for Career & Professional Success, located in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, is another tool available for students to land their dream internships. The center offers resources including career fairs, career coaching, a career development toolkit and several professional development events. Employment opportunities including on-campus jobs, internships and federal work-study positions can be found on Handshake, an online platform for college students and alumni to find jobs.

Folakemi Omisore, director of the career center, highlighted resources and the guidance they provide for students in need of internships.

“The Center for Career & Professional Success team is encouraging students to start now with positioning themselves for success. We encourage you to utilize our resources to support your development before you apply for the internship,” Omisore said. 

“We want to make sure that your resume is polished by giving you access to our AI resume builder known as VMOCK,” Omisore said. “We want to make sure that you can walk the walk and talk the talk by attending our informative corporate-sponsored workshops.”

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VMock, the AI resume builder, is set to launch this fall, according to Omisore.

“Lastly, we hope you will finally land that internship of your dreams by attending the Fall 2023 On-Site All Majors Job & Internship Career Fair. The CCPS Team is always available if you are in need of one-on-one guidance,” Omisore said.

Additional internship resources can be accessed via Handshake and the Center for Career and Professional Success’s website.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew


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