On a sweltering day in Washington, D.C., the 8:30 a.m. Metro rush hour is filled with college students wearing a range of business casual to formal clothing, a lanyard and photo ID hanging around their necks. Knowing D.C., with its crowd of “Hillterns” and non-profit interns, most of these students are probably off to their unpaid gig. Probably the minority receive any payment, much less a stipend for transportation or housing.
Eight and a half hours later: Cue the 5:00 p.m. rush. The same students have left their buildings — perhaps a tie is loosened, high heels switched for sneakers — and the Metro is full of bodies pressed against one another, trying to find a space on their way home, trying not to fall over as the Metro careens to an abrupt stop. As everyone rushes off their last stop to get home, I get off mine to walk to my next job for a six-hour shift at Anthropologie after an eight-hour one at my unpaid internship.
It’s not that I didn’t receive any financial support from the University of Michigan — in fact, I was really lucky to receive more from an LSA scholarship than I expected — but it wasn’t able to cover all of my expenses in D.C. Hence, the second job at Anthropologie. I still had to think about the rent I had to pay for my off-campus house in Ann Arbor, my future rent for the school year and saving up for loans. You get the idea. And while my internship gave us a $50 monthly stipend for transportation, it wasn’t enough to cover my transportation costs (thanks, Metro peak pricing!).
So while I had been applying for LSA scholarships for my internship, I was also applying for jobs in D.C. I arrived two weeks prior to the start of my internship to interview for a paid job, and luckily, I got the first and only one I interviewed for, at Anthropologie. Since my internship was set for 25 hours per week — the nonprofit was very flexible with our hours — I asked for 20 at Anthropologie.
For anyone who’s ever worked in food service or retail before, you’ll know that employers always schedule you for more hours than you asked for. And so it came as no surprise that Anthropologie scheduled me for more than 20 hours per week, sometimes creeping close to 30.
It wasn’t often that I’d have to go straight from my internship to my retail job. Most of the time, I’d be working six days a week, eight and a half for three days at my internship, nine for three days at Anthropologie. I still managed to squeeze some time to go to the free museums in D.C. and some other touristy things, but I was always exhausted.
Because I was working part-time at my internship, I often felt like I would be missing out on making personal and professional connections on the days that I wasn’t there. I wasn’t able to go to any of the happy hours that the nonprofit hosted because I’d always be scheduled at Anthropologie during those times, and this too added to my sense of missing out on opportunities.
Looking back, it all sounds pretty silly, but at the time my FOMO got the better of me and made me feel like these kinds of events were essential for networking and thinking about future career opportunities, and that missing them would take me a step backward from everyone else. I realize now that this is an exaggeration.
There were days, of course, when I wish I didn’t have to take on a second job in order to support myself with an unpaid internship. My mom works two jobs seven days a week all year-round. I couldn’t even fathom doing so for more than a summer, and I have no idea how some students at the University juggle two jobs with a full course load throughout the school year. I can barely handle one.
There were days when I wish I pursued studies in a field where they were guaranteed to give you a paid internship. Hearing from my friends about their paid computer science internships, paid engineering internships and paid laboratory research internships made me jealous, though I never told them this, nor admitted it to myself.
There were days when I reminded myself that I was lucky and privileged to have an internship in the first place since there can be so many barriers to obtaining one. Who was I to complain about interning and working and living in D.C., when so many cannot afford to do so? Who was I to complain when the situation of juggling two jobs temporarily was the daily reality for so many?
My experience is certainly not unique to what nearly all low-income, and some middle-income students like myself, have to face when deciding to pursue that unpaid internship. I knew three other people who also took on a second job in addition to their unpaid internship this summer. Having that knowledge made me feel less alone, and yet I was always aware that it seemed like there were fewer of us who had to do this in comparison to those who could afford to get by with just an unpaid summer internship.
Finding internships for the summer is stressful. It’s that time of year when I need to start making plans for the summer again, editing my resume and thinking about what paid job I would need to get if I am accepted in an unpaid internship, or if I am not. In the midst of the holidays and looming finals, it all seems overwhelming — but if I made it through last year, made it through a 25-minute walk to Anthropologie in the humid, suffocating heat after an eight-hour day at my internship — then I can make it through again.
This is part of a series of articles examining the impact of unpaid internships on students of limited means. To see the rest of this week’s issue of Statement Magazine, see here.