Like many University of Michigan students, I am from the deep Midwest, in a district likely dubbed “Trump Country, USA” by coastal reporters. My father has worked in manufacturing his entire life. Unlike many of my peers, my parents didn’t go to college, nor are they in an income bracket to finance any of my college experience. Because of this, I wasn’t able to acquire a Capitol Hill internship by riding the coattails of my parents’ wealth or social capital, but my family’s working-class background drew me to public service.
During the summer after high school graduation, I worked at a factory assembling chairs and other odd bits of furniture. The next summer I worked in the same factory as my dad, where I assisted in the production of countertops. While these summers didn’t give me as many resume bullet points as my D.C. internship did, they enabled me to save money for the school year — somewhat of a necessity for low-income students.
I remember feeling so frustrated my second summer at home. Many of my new college friends spent their summers working impressive internships, honing their professional interests and networking in large cities. It was disappointing to spend the summer in my small Ohio town.
This feeling of failure stuck with me during my sophomore year. I spent countless hours applying to internships, curating my resume and using the few connections I had to try and find an opening.
While several unpaid internship opportunities did come up, they didn’t seem feasible for me. The logistics of a summer internship create a large psychological barrier when you don’t even know how you’re going to pay for it. How was I going to find housing? How will I pay for a plane ticket? I’ll probably need to purchase more professional clothing, but how much will that be? These questions persuaded me to skip out on any internship experience entirely, and I worked in a University Housing position that summer. The free room and board allowed me to skip another summer at home in a factory and I found work as a research assistant.
The following summer, I made the finances work, but just barely. With the help of the Public Service Internship Program and additional resume experience from my research position, I landed an internship in the United States Congress. Like most internships on Capitol Hill, mine was unpaid. Even after a generous stipend from the LSA Opportunity Hub (they gave me more than I asked for), the expense of accommodation covered by the Office of Financial Aid and several birthday gifts in the form of money from friends and family, I still walked away from the experience with debt. I ultimately was on my own financially, just like each summer before. This time, though, I had no source of income.
I arrived in D.C. with less than $50 to my name, as the stipend arrived the week after settling into D.C. While it was helpful to have something, the stipend I received from the Opportunity Hub barely paid for my sunk rent back in Ann Arbor. Each month I paid $640 for a house I wasn’t living in — its location far from campus didn’t make it a desirable spot for those interested in subletting. The flights to and from D.C., daily Metro fares and grocery shopping all further abused my wallet — oftentimes I charged my credit to pay for groceries. While I could splurge on a few dinners or happy hours, I meal prepped most weeks — consuming plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other cheap meals and sometimes skipped events with friends to save money.
The 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. days and their accompanying commute left little time to pick up a side job. Despite this reality, halfway through the summer I was filled with self-doubt that I wasn’t trying harder to find a way to make money. That said, I’m glad to have gained such an experience –– my resume appreciates the facelift –– and I truly enjoyed the work. It was worth it, but it was a financial nightmare.
During the second week of mail-sorting and running errands, I received a phone call from my father. My mother, who has had Type 1 diabetes for almost 14 years, was in the hospital. She was in a diabetic ketoacidosis coma for 9 days. What led to her hospitalization is a story familiar across the country: Financial burdens and the high cost of medication had been restricting my parents from purchasing the insulin she needed to survive. She opted to ration her supplies rather than buying the necessary amounts our family couldn’t afford. Chronic lack of supplies led her to the emergency room that morning. The intensive care unit doctor receiving her said her body’s readings were “incompatible with human life.” She nearly died.
In the weeks following her initial trip to the hospital, I tried to contextualize the implications of her near-death experience. First, it was hard not to politicize her hospitalization. A genuine financial constraint and inadequate American health care system put her in the hospital. Again, I was angry. Not at myself, but at the context of the entire situation.
Few working-class students are entangled in the web of well-connected, affluent students working in the Capitol Building. Hill intern affluence was physically evident: 18 to 22-year-olds purchasing $13 lunches daily, sporting Louis Vuitton tote bags, Cartier bracelets or Tory Burch sandals. At the same time, their more intangible characteristics shed wealth as well — children of lawyers, dentists, professors — many of whom were educated at Ivy League schools. It was evident I was an odd one out, and my mother’s hospitalization made this even more clear.
Most of us aren’t the children of doctors and lawyers. Most of us can’t afford expensive clothing. (Many days during my internship I felt like Nathan Fielder, in a not-so-perfectly fitting suit with a broken button.) While these students are well-intentioned in their commitments to public service, they are also likely well-insured. When I pleaded with my upper-middle-class, liberal friends the necessity of “Medicare for All,” they still find excuses not to address the health care issue, unable to relate to my family’s struggle. When you’re not directly affected by the policy you’re interested in changing, it’s just an abstraction you’re allowed to disconnect from at the end of the day.
My mother is still bouncing back, but doing much better. It had been scary, especially while I was halfway across the country. After grappling with this frustration, I look back and wonder if the internship was worth the financial stress I put myself through. Before I purchased my plane tickets to D.C., I remember hearing, “It will be worth it, it pays in experience!” over and over again.
While I do think it was worth the experience gained, the context of my situation makes me we wonder who we are inviting into the realm of political jobs. I went into debt for my internship even with the financial support I received from the University, and it took two years of internship hunting to feel comfortable enough to take the plunge into an unpaid position.
We need to have an honest conversation about who is invited to participate in policymaking. For too many policymakers and staff, their wealth safeguards them from their own legislation. This needs to change. A first step is ensuring all people irrespective of class background have the ability to afford access to these internships.
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.