By Harleen Kaur, Columnist
Published May 7, 2014
Washington, D.C., the promised land of internships for all students interested in politics, advocacy and government. After spending last summer in Manhattan, I knew I wanted to be in D.C. this summer, to experience the other big East Coast option for me post-graduation. As someone interested in a career in policy work and advocacy for minority rights, it was clear it was time to pursue the revered Capitol Hill internship.
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I decided to apply for an internship placement program, SikhLEAD, which is part of a Sikh advocacy and education organization, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. After being selected for SikhLEAD, the process began. I had to work with the placement organizer to focus my interests, determine what would be a good fit for me and start the applications for congressional offices. The process was lengthy and tiresome, often requiring immediate responses or an application filled out within 24 hours, sending me on a complete rollercoaster of emotions.
After getting interviews for a few congressional offices, I realized that the process would take a little more than I expected. A lot of more competitive offices were splitting their summer internships into two sessions, in order to allow twice as many people the opportunity to participate in the program. Although this is certainly a great gesture on their part, it made the process more difficult personally. I now needed to get selected for two internships, not one, and I also had to ensure that I received one for the first half of the summer and another for the second half of the summer.
On top of school and the cumbersome internship hunt, there’s funding. Learning the hard way from my ridiculously expensive summer in Manhattan (housing alone was close to $4,000 for 11 weeks), I knew I needed to look for funding sources early on. Unfortunately, unlike many of my peers, none of the academic departments I belong to would provide funding for an internship on Capitol Hill. I kept searching and found the LSA Internship Scholarship, to which I ended up applying. But I know that my summer will cost at least a few thousand dollars, so I made a visit to The Career Center with the expectation that they could help me locate more funding.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The Career Center representative I met with told me that beyond the LSA Internship Scholarship, the University doesn’t have much funding to support students over the summer, and there are little to no local or national scholarships. If I wanted to find other funding, I would have to do it on my own. Frustrated and disheartened, I walked out of the office. Luckily, I did receive the scholarship, but without it, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be going to D.C. for the summer.
Knowing that there are so many factors that could have prevented me from having a successful internship experience is not only disheartening, but it makes me wonder about the ways that these experiences are created for a very select group of people. Without the funding, programs and networks I have, it’s likely that I wouldn’t have been able to make this summer work for me.
Unpaid internships target a very specific group of people and leave many others out. By capitalizing on students who have the socioeconomic status to pursue these internships, these opportunities are catering success to those who are able to afford it. When I decided my career path, the advice rolled in: you need a law degree, a Capitol Hill internship on your resume is pretty much a prerequisite, make sure you do a lot of networking. It doesn’t take a rocket science to see that all of these “necessities” for success cost money — a lot of money.
The road to D.C. has certainly been a long one, and I’m sure my internships will require just as much energy, if not more. I’m leaving Ann Arbor with excitement and anticipation for the experiences to come, but also remembering that I’m one of the lucky few who can take advantage of experiences like this. Although our social identities certainly have an impact on our daily lives, I hope that one day they won’t have such a powerful influence on what individuals are and are not able to do. If we’re all truly created equal, it’s certainly time that our institutions reflect that truth.
Harleen Kaur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.