Student interns unpaid but undeterred


To be legal, unpaid internships must be for educational benefit of the student intern




Some students value an internship for more than just its paycheck reward.

According to Career Services’ recently released Summer Internship Survey Reports for students in the College of Arts and Sciences, 19 percent of rising seniors took unpaid work last summer. Of rising juniors and sophomores, 25 and 23 percent pursued unpaid internships, respectively. According to Patricia Rose, director of Career Services, these numbers have remained steady over the past few years.

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She added that many students perform unpaid work because it has become the norm in some industries.

“With nonprofits and the federal government, many positions are unpaid,” she said, adding that some industries have union laws preventing paid internships, as “the only people who can work on a movie set are union members.”

Though students are not getting monetary compensation for their work, some wonder how much educational benefit they can reap.

Credit outside the classroom

The University does not usually offer course credit to students for both paid and unpaid work experiences.

“Penn has always felt that course credit can only be given for work in the classroom,” Rose said.

According to Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the Provost’s Office, a Penn faculty member should oversee any activity or project that would translate into academic credit.

He added that Penn has no University-wide rules on internship credit, as each undergraduate school has its own policies on academic credit.

Currently, students from the College can obtain a note on their transcript to recognize work experience only if the work is unpaid and an employer insists on awarding educational credit. This note does not carry any credit units.

The School of Engineering and Applied Science and the School of Nursing both offer course credit for internships only if the work is built around a wider independent study project, supervised by a faculty member.

The Wharton School has a “Curricular Practical Training” program, where students can gain credit for business-related work experience. Students can get credit for this if they work at a job outside of their home country or if an employer requires the student to receive academic credit for unpaid work. They must also enroll in an online course, which includes time management, leadership and teamwork training. This opportunity is only open to rising juniors and seniors.

While Nelson said there have been “incremental changes” in internship credit policies over the last few years, he has not heard of any plans to make significant changes to current policies.

College junior Beverly Tantiansu, who has secured a paid marketing internship for this summer, feels that Penn’s undergraduate schools should consider changing their rules. “Internships can save time for the student because it allows you to work and learn at the same time,” she said. “It would be more helpful and less stressful to get credit.”

However, Igor Baran, a College freshman who remembers applying for over 50 internships, both paid and unpaid this summer, approves of Penn’s current policy. “I didn’t expect a prestigious institution like Penn to offer course credit for internships,” he said. “I didn’t go into this looking for credit.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act

In addition to credit, students taking unpaid internships should also make sure their arrangement does not break the law.

Unpaid internship positions may fall foul of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A legal unpaid internship in most industries must be exclusively for the educational benefit of the intern and not give immediate advantages to the employer.

However, Rose said Career Services has not seen Penn students run into legal complications with their internships.

Wharton junior Alex Furka said he was unaware of the legal implications.

“If I had known about this law, I would reconsider applying for internships,” he said.

Arielle Brousse, an assistant director of development at the Kelly Writers House who wrote a March 13 op-ed called “The Internship Trap” in The Philadelphia Inquirer, said she has heard instances of “horrible cases of unpaid interns who don’t work full-time who don’t have legal rights to protest against employers.”

Funding unpaid internships

Brousse, a 2007 College graduate, also felt strongly about fairness issues surrounding unpaid internships.

Many students might not be able to afford working without pay.

With outside funding, students may be more incentivized to take advantage of unpaid opportunities.

“As a student, when I saw all these work opportunities, it was very easy for a student from a family who could afford two or three unpaid internships,” she said.

“It’s very easy to talk about ideals of equal access while ignoring the systems in place that enable some people to have greater access to work opportunities,” she added.

To aid students otherwise unable to take unpaid work, the Kelly Writers House formed an internship fund called RealArts @ PENN. According to Jamie-Lee Josselyn, the assistant to the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the program funds about 10 students at media and arts internships.

“So many media internships are based in New York, and for students who do not come from New York, it’s a huge problem to relocate without a salary,” Josselyn said.

College senior Jamie Napoli, who interned with Hollywood director and Penn alumnus Jon Avnet last summer through RealArts, praised the program. “It would definitely not have been feasible for me to spend the summer in L.A. working full time without a stipend,” he said.

Napoli added that the value of an internship lays outside the size of its paycheck, or its academic credit value. “Focusing on the experiences rather than on other superfluous awards frees you to pursue the most productive way to gain new insight and experience for future work,” he added.

The graphic in this article has been updated to reflect that the internships were taken on by College students, not all Penn students.

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