Campus Life

Are Unpaid Internships Detrimental or Beneficial for Career-Driven College Students?

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It’s a Monday afternoon. SMU student Rani Vestal grabs her homemade lunch, heads out of her dorm room, and calls an Uber. After making the traffic-filled trek to Downtown Dallas, she heads into the office for another day at work. When she gets there, her assigned computer set-up is waiting for her, Adobe Creative software and all.

Vestal works as a graphic design intern for a small women-run marketing firm. As an intern, she gets to sit in on project meetings – even the ones she’s not a part of – and has daily check-ins with her boss. She proposes ideas for projects and even gets hands-on on the design side: creating stickers and flyers, and helping curate content for the company’s Instagram, such as taking her own photos or designing graphics for holidays. Despite having to balance classes five days a week, she still gets excited about beginning a new journey to ultimately discover what she wants to do with her career. Everything is going great.

The catch? She’s an unpaid intern.

Unpaid internships remain a controversial topic throughout academic and workforce circles. Mainly, they are characterized by lack of payment or by the incentive of academic credit. Some claim that the experience gained from them ultimately trumps the fact that students do not receive compensation. Others argue that the lack of compensation puts pressure on students when deciding to take an unpaid internship because they have to expend their own resources, like finances or time. Ultimately, they can become a disadvantage to students who cannot afford to take them, making them an option only for those who can.

An article by the Wall Street Journal reported “In 2012, about half of all internships were unpaid. Since that peak, unpaid internships have steadily declined, hitting 43% in 2017, according to NACE.”

Thus, the debate continues: Are unpaid internships beneficial or detrimental for a student’s success?

A 2015 study on the impact of unpaid internships on career development, also conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), concluded that “Unpaid internships were correlated to positive outcomes in the areas of confirming or rejecting career interests, setting and attaining career goals, quality of supervision, and networking. In the latter two categories, unpaid internships proved to be slightly more impactful than paid internship experiences (although both were significant).”

Dr. Wendelin Donahue, associate director of Employer Relations at SMU’s Hegi Family Career Center, agrees that unpaid internships can be beneficial in those ways. Although she cannot speak to whether more or less SMU students specifically choose to do unpaid versus paid internships, she believes if unpaid internships offer experience that is more reputable than just getting paid in another one, students should take them.

“I feel like the ability to speak to solid experience trumps anything. Whether you can articulate what you did, how it impacted the organization, and if it did those kinds of things, has nothing to do with whether you’ve been paid or not,” Dr. Donahue said. “That far outweighs having an internship where you can’t even speak to any of the work that you did, but you got paid.”

Vestal, now a senior, also feels like her time doing an unpaid internship was beneficial because she was younger at the time and could explore her career options more freely. She felt honored to get that first opportunity (which eventually would transition into a paid internship). In the end, that internship impacted her chosen career path, which is one of the reasons she enjoyed it so much.

“I got to do a lot of creative work,” Vestal said. “I got to work on a logo design –which was my first exposure to that – and now that’s all I want to do.”

SMU junior Maggie Kelleher currently works as a paid marketing intern with a hospitality company but has never had an unpaid internship before. A big part of her internship this semester is trying to figure out if she likes the marketing field, but she also likes getting paid because it gives her freedom to do more things outside of work and school.

“Being paid, I feel like, makes me more motivated to do good work,” Kelleher said. “Because it’s like, ‘I have a tangible reward.’ I feel like that would potentially be something that I would struggle with in an unpaid internship.”

However, Kelleher says that she wouldn’t reject an unpaid internship just because it was unpaid. She believes it’s only worthwhile to take an unpaid internship if she would be gaining valuable experience and making connections.

“I wouldn’t do it just to put it on my resume,” Kelleher said. “I would only do it if I actually gained skills.”

However, not all students share similar experiences to Vestal and Kelleher. SMU senior Mary Grace Metheny has had her share of both unpaid and paid internships, and although she is extremely grateful for the experiences and the strong clips she received, she ultimately believes that unpaid internships negatively put strain on students to expend their own resources and effort for something they do not get paid for – despite the resume-worthy experience.

“Most organizations know that you can get college students to work for free because you say, ‘you don’t have a degree’ or ‘you don’t have experience,’ and ‘this will provide experience to help you get your job in the future,’” Metheny said. “However, I don’t think it’s a realistic lifestyle for college students, and even sometimes people who take unpaid internships after college.”

Essentially, it all comes down to accessibility. Metheny says that she had the ability to work for three months last summer in order to do her unpaid internship – her parents were able to pay her expenses and she lived at home. But, she recognizes that not all students have the luxury or privileges to do the same.

“I think there are so few paid internships,” Metheny said. “And for the people who can’t sacrifice the time and not get paid, for the people who have expenses, or whose parents don’t live here, or whose parents don’t support them, I don’t know that it’s a good or right system where we expect people to be able to work for free when a lot of people our age have expenses.”

Vestal agrees. Even though her unpaid internship experience ended well, she sees the importance of the work she puts in and feels that she deserves to get paid, or she says, future internships are not worth her time. However, Vestal also says that she does not regret taking her unpaid internship, but when reflecting on it, she notes the risk she took because at the time, she was not as financially supported as other students on campus might have been.

“We need to feel validated for the work we’re doing,” Vestal remarked. “Even if it has nothing to do with the work, [paid internships are] helping me live, survive, feel free, and not constrained to the stress or burden of money, and I think that’s more valuable than any experience from an unpaid internship.”

The SMU Hegi Career Center is in the stages of developing a scholarship for an SMU student to receive a stipend in order to take an unpaid internship at a non-profit or government agency. For more information, contact the Career Center.

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