After a summer internship at Equis Funds Group, a private equity fund in Singapore, Wharton junior Connie Chen returned back to the United States $5,000 in debt. Despite receiving funding from Penn’s International Internship Program, Chen said the fund only covered her transportation and some small living expenses. Pricey housing in Singapore and the cost of living meant that even with the funding, she was still in debt for the summer.
Like many Penn students, Chen returned in the fall with real-world experience and empty pockets.
Chen spent a lot of the summer organizing basic Excel spreadsheets and making preliminary calculations. But she also gained some rewarding skills, such as researching how to best allocate the company’s $50,000 corporate social responsibility fund.
“The job just sounded really good, so now that I have that on my resume, it’s much easier to maybe get something through PennLink this summer,” Chen said.
Chen chose the internship because it aligned better with her long-term goals, even though it led to financial loss in the short-term.
“Internship money, compared to how much money you are supposedly going to make in the real world, is very minimal,” Chen said. “So it’s best to maximize how much experience and how many connections you’ll get from your internships rather than purely how much you get paid, because in the long run it doesn’t matter as much.”
For Chen, her unpaid internship was the way to the future she wanted. For another student, College junior Ashley Van, taking an unpaid internship abroad allowed her to have an international experience that she otherwise would not have had.
Van interned in Ghana at the developmental consultancy firm ILC Africa. She received funding for her internship which covered costs of travel and living.
Van did mostly office work such as research and curriculum development, interacting minimally with locals on the job. Though she said the work she did was not always exciting, Van thought the opportunity to live in Ghana for the summer made her experience valuable.
“The main gain was not so much from the actual work but the experience,” she said, pointing out that, due to funding from Penn, she essentially got to live in Ghana for free even though she did not earn an income.
The experience of living in Ghana and doing healthcare-related work, such as transcribing interviews conducted with local nurses, gave Van an important perspective as a health and societies major.
Many unpaid internships can also benefit students by opening up future opportunities.
Dan Rottenberg, a 1964 College graduate who once worked at The Daily Pennsylvanian, said that he has employed unpaid interns during his career at the publications Broad Street Review and the Welcome Mat.
Rottenberg said that in journalism, interns can benefit in their careers from the opportunity to be published, even if they are not paid.
“If you get to write an article and you have a byline, that’s one of the big things that gets you in the door,” he said. He stressed that it is important for employers to make sure their interns are learning and getting valuable experience.
“I feel if you are just going to use interns and treat them like secretaries, then you are exploiting them,” he said.
Working Across the Private and Public Sectors
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the U.S. government dictates that interns working in the private sector must generally be paid minimum wage, with specific exceptions. In order to be an exception to the act, an internship must meet multiple criteria: being “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” being beneficial to the intern and ensuring that “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern,” in addition to many other criteria.
Other countries have their own specific requirements when it comes to short-term workers. For example, it is difficult for foreign students to be paid for working in China because of visa laws.
Wharton freshman Grace Song plans on doing an unpaid internship at a Chinese consulting firm this summer.
“I feel like with an unpaid internship there’s not as much structure, which can be a good or bad thing. I plan on using the lack of structure to my advantage,” she said, adding that she would be able to have more freedom to attend different types of meetings and work in various parts of the company.
Still, Senior Associate Director of Career Services Claire Klieger said she generally discourages students from accepting unpaid internships from private-sector organizations.
“There are so many great paid internships out there that we don’t see any reasons why students should be pursuing unpaid internships in the for-profit world,” she said.
Internships without pay in the private sector were much more common before controversies in recent years, Klieger said.
The entertainment and fashion industries have been particularly scrutinized. In 2010, two interns who worked on the set of the film “Black Swan” filed and won a lawsuit against Fox Entertainment Group, arguing that the film company’s use of unpaid interns was illegal. In 2013, thousands of interns who were paid below minimum wage working at publications such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker filed a class action lawsuit against Condé Nast, which ended its internship program soon after.
Still, legal restrictions do not stop many Penn students from taking unpaid private-sector internships. As the result of stricter laws surrounding unpaid internships, many companies require that students receive university credit for completing unpaid internships.
Penn does not offer academic credit for internships in most cases. When credit is required, the University will grant students “internship credit” that will show up on their transcripts.
On the other hand, internships in the public sector, such as those with non-governmental organizations and in government and public policy, can legally be unpaid.
Looking for summer jobs in the public sector, “you are going to be severely limiting yourself in terms of what is out there and gaining great experience if you are not willing to consider unpaid options,” Klieger said.
“I do see the toll that it takes on [students for] multiple consecutive summers,” she added.
Many prestigious internships do not pay students. College junior David Kolansky interned at the House of Representatives with Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen the summer after his freshman year. Like all U.S. government interns, he was not paid.
Kolansky said the research and public speaking skills that he gained through his internship, as well as exposure to a broad range of areas in public policy, made his internship incredibly valuable and will help him on his path to law school.
“The topics that I worked on while in Congress really opened my eyes to other areas of foreign policy that I may not have been so invested in earlier on,” Kolansky said, adding that “it was definitely a tremendous experience.”
Making Internships Affordable
Penn can make unpaid or low-paying internships financially realistic for students. Many sources at Penn such as Career Services, the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, Wharton Public Policy Initiative, Wharton Social Impact, Fox Leadership and Penn Abroad fund summer internships for students. Depending on the source, the funds can provide income for students or simply supplement summer living and other expenses so that students do not lose money over the summer.
Last summer, 20 percent of College undergraduates and 15.5 percent of Wharton undergraduates took unpaid internships. The same statistics were not made publicly available for the Nursing and Engineering schools.
Still, funding is selective. Career Services will fund 27 student internships this summer after receiving 204 applications. Similarly, the Civic House Public Interest Internship Funds will fund 17 out of the 88 applications it received for its public interest internship funding. Klieger said the strongest funding applications clearly articulate how the internship will directly benefit their career goals in the future.
Proper timing for applicants is also a challenge. Klieger described the internship funding process as a “catch-22” because students may not have heard back from the internships they applied to before due dates to apply for funding, and they often hear back about whether or not they have received funding only a few weeks before summer vacation begins, meaning that it is hard to have a back-up job if they do not end up receiving funding.
“The timing can be difficult as to when you hear about your internship and when you have to apply for funds,” she said. Still, most sources of funding at Penn will let you apply if you have at least applied to the internship, but have not heard back yet, she said.
She added that the reason many of the deadlines are earlier than some students would prefer is because funding sources need the time to go through what can be hundreds of applications.
College freshman Mathilde Beniflah found the process of applying for summer funding difficult to manage because of early deadlines. She did not hear back about getting her summer internship until after the deadline of March 23 to apply for funding from Career Services.
“What I found strange was that the deadline [to apply for funding] was so much earlier, yet I kept getting emails from Penn about summer opportunities,” she said.
Beniflah will work at SchlaU-Schule, a high school in Munich, Germany. The school helps newly arrived immigrants, who often have no knowledge of the German language or culture, by teaching them the skills to assimilate into society. The school has a job placement service that ensures students will have jobs after graduating.
Although she will probably get paid minimum wage, by staying with friends in Munich she can offset some of the costs of living, she said. Even though she will not receive funding from Penn, she believes her internship will be a very valuable experience for her in learning about international education and giving her the opportunity to give back.
“I didn’t take this internship for the monetary value,” she said.Comments powered by Disqus
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