What are you doing this summer?

A question I hate is one, like clockwork, that I find myself answering every year beginning in April and through June. And after summer? It becomes a question in the past tense. I don’t like that question for largely two reasons. Firstly, because I sometimes don’t know what I’m going to be doing and secondly, it’s often not nearly as cool as what others are doing. But even more so because follow up questions almost always lead to the “paid or unpaid” question.

Sheepishly, I would sometimes admit to someone that I am not getting paid, quickly adding that I know I’m very fortunate to be able to have the position. But sometimes, hopefully trying to avoid further conversation, I would be somewhat vague as to my position — hoping that the person won’t ask the question in the first place.

Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I recognize that some people who need to get a paying job might feel uncomfortable in these conversations as they cannot necessarily accept a potentially exciting position because it is unpaid. Here, though, I can only speak to my experiences, and for me, what made me uncomfortable about this question was I had to recognize my privilege.

For the past two summers, I’ve worked at a few law organizations as an unpaid intern, learning extensively about asylum law and the procedure to gain legal status in the United States, as well as observing the workings of different civil courts and the process of eviction cases. Though I am certainly not ready to take the Bar or anything, there is no doubt I have gained valuable experience. And as became evident in interviews for internship positions, my unpaid, stipend positions at the Daily helped me get these jobs. These are experiences I likely would not have had if I needed a full-time paying job throughout the year.  

Furthermore, though being enrolled in top schools is still important, recent findings make it clear that something else is often what sets some job candidates apart. Lauren A. Rivera, a researcher at Northwestern University, found that it wasn’t enough for someone to hail from an elite university. Extracurricular activities have become a large part of what recruiters for elite companies are looking for in their interns.

More frequently now than ever before, recruiters are doing what Rivera calls a “secondary screening” — looking for people who have also done “high status, resource-intensive activities” outside of the classroom. And these types of activities, according to Rivera, are most specifically in line with the activities of those who are white and in the upper-middle class. This practice “contributes to a social closure of elite jobs based on socio-economic status.”

The bottom line? Having the ability to partake in extracurricular activities that do not pay, getting unpaid internship experiences that will give them more of a leg up, helps tremendously in the long run. And unfortunately, without change, this structure will continue to perpetuate inequalities, which is especially dire given the studies that show how certain groups of people — especially minorities — disproportionately face financial barriers to these opportunities.

Nonetheless, I am not trying to say that people who work multiple jobs cannot also hold unpaid internships simultaneously. My intent is not to paint a picture that diminishes anyone’s ability to balance many responsibilities. I know many people who have multiple paying jobs and do amazing internships. But even so, there will be some internships that won’t be possible, or they will not get time to do other things and further their interests outside of work and internships. Finances shouldn’t ever be a barrier, but they are, and we need to do something about it.

Those who can work the most rigorous, all-encompassing internships, those who can afford to be paid very little if nothing at all, have their pick of a much larger number of internships. Those who can spend hours each week in organizations as an undergraduate, those who can volunteer extensively at nonprofits, are the ones whose resumes will presumably be sent to the top of the pile when they apply for jobs.

I know many smaller organizations — non-profits, for example, that are helping people of low income — cannot, understandably so, pay a bunch of students to do some filing and shadow lawyers to court. But I implore the organizations that have the capabilities to do so to really invest in their interns.

And the University of Michigan must also do its part. I can tell you now, administrators, if you’re reading this, that what I won’t remember is the extra comfy chairs in the study room in Mason Hall, or the extra shine of the building plaque. But what I will remember are the nights I was at the Daily until 2 a.m. to publish an editorial alongside a breaking news story. I’ll remember standing for nearly 24 hours at Dance Marathon. I’ll remember learning about asylum law and sitting in on cases at eviction court.

I know funding is often tied up in a specific entity, I know it’s not as simple as reallocating funds and all that stuff. But to encourage diversity, to attract people from all walks of life, I ask that the University take the lead in continuing to create and promote scholarships for students to take on leadership roles in campus organizations and summer internships so everyone has a more equal chance at the best opportunities.

Central Student Government’s scholarship is an important start, but we need more. Everyone, regardless of their financial situation, deserves a chance to thrive. Because when given the tools, more often than not, people will take these opportunities and thrive. And furthermore, everyone deserves the chance to do what they love and not worry about the financial barriers. This might seem overly optimistic, but even as a person who leans pessimistic more often than not, I truly believe we can work toward giving everyone these chances.

And for the individuals who may be reading this and frustrated because you think I am telling you to forgo your job at the American Embassy to stand up against unpaid internships, I’m not. Keep your plane ticket, move into your apartment and enjoy your job. But I implore you to recognize it as a privilege. There are many students, as summer rolls around, who can’t afford to pick and choose their jobs or internships because they need to work somewhere that will pay them. They can’t go out-of-state or abroad because that would mean finding housing and transportation. Be thankful for what you have, and do your part to work to shape the future.

Whether it’s committing to continue research like Rivera’s, writing articles exposing these inequalities, advocating for changes to work policies, writing grants or lobbying for scholarships for students to do unpaid internships or take on a leadership role in a student organization, everyone can make a difference. Changes to the system don’t only have to come from the ones with millions of dollars to give to charities. Big or small, what you do will make a difference.  

Anna Polumbo-Levy can be reached at annapl@umich.edu

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