Most days, my college education truly feels like the great equalizer. The University of Michigan is home to the children of doctors, lawyers and artists; children who grew up taking exotic vacations and boarding at expensive schools; children who know the function of the smaller outer fork in a table set — and it is, by some miracle, my home, too.
Together we complain about exams, immerse ourselves in student organizations, hunch over our homework with coffee in hand, willingly engaging in an unspoken inter-class camaraderie every day. However, there are drawbacks to attending a school where the median family income of its students exceeds the value of my house; subtle reminders that, while I may share spaces with the elite, I do not always share their opportunities. And each time summer rolls around, it never fails to jolt me back to reality.
To put it bluntly, my parents don’t see the merit of unpaid internships. To them, working for free seems outrageous — a complete waste of time. After all, how am I supposed to pay off my student loans if I don’t save up what I earn during the summer?
After dropping out of community college, my dad waited tables and worked as a disc jockey on the side before landing in the central supply unit of St. John Hospital in Detroit. My mom, on the other hand, grew up on a farm in small-town Michigan and worked four jobs in high school and college to pay for her associate’s degree in secretarial science. For a time, she was a medical transcriptionist (that’s how I learned the term endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography), before bouncing around during the recession in 2008 and ending up in specimen processing at the Detroit Medical Center.
In the months leading up to the end of winter semester, it is an uphill battle of explanation. I need the experience. I can’t work full-time at a restaurant. I know my boss told me I could come back and bus tables any time, but I don’t want to. The University gives out scholarships for interns. No, you don’t have to pay for it.
Last summer, I convinced them to let me stay in Ann Arbor to work on a congressional campaign. This summer, they want me at home. While my friends scatter themselves across the globe — traveling, camping, taking coveted positions in D.C. — I will retreat to the one place where I have complete financial security: my dingy, unremarkable suburb. So much for leveling the playing field.
As much as it sucks, my experience is commonplace for lower-income students pining after glamorous summer plans, and it isn’t just a matter of funding them, either. We know there are resources. Believe us, we’ve scoured the scholarship websites and could probably recite verbatim the descriptions of specific scholarship packages to you. No, a lot of our struggle has to do with guilt. Some of us have to work to provide for our families; others simply cannot get their parents to warm up to the idea (“You’re away during the school year, why do you have to leave for the summer, too? We miss you!”).
So each year, while our peers gain valuable experience in their respective fields, we unwillingly set ourselves back — because, not surprisingly, employers will almost always take the guy who wrote policy memos for four months on Capitol Hill over the girl who worked in the stockroom at her local Kroger.
While the University does all it can to provide students with financial resources for internships, most scholarship packages only cover the cost of housing and food for the duration of the program, which nets zero by the end of the summer. For those of us with families who may not understand the experiential value of unpaid work, it is almost impossible to convince them that working for free in our field of interest is ultimately more beneficial in the long run than laboring at a service job for minimum wage.
I implore the University to consider the barriers low-income students encounter when seeking internships and subsequently train advisers to understand and accommodate this. Whether that entails connecting them with paid options or simply preparing them for conversations with their parents on the subject, a little consideration can go a long way.
Once the dorms close for the summer, not everyone has the means to continue their education outside of the classroom; some are forced to withdraw to a reality that is worlds away from the luxuries of campus. And when you are consistently knocked back on your ass every May after spending a school year steadily advancing with your peers, things can seem pretty hopeless and unfair.
For many, the months between winter and fall semester serve as a painful reminder that, while they may rub elbows with their wealthier counterparts eight months out of the year, matching or even outdoing them in academics, they will never quite fit in with them. It is an inequality that is overlooked and under-appreciated, and one that will always cause me to dread the arrival of spring.
Lauren Schandevel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.