Unpaid internships: a different form of compensation

‘Tis the season for internship applications. Year after year, we hear from students about receiving below-minimum-wage-pay and facing exploitation in what should be a “real-world experience.” It’s nothing new, though. Internships are unfair and often illegal. Under the United States Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must pay everyone. It exempts educational positions as long as employers don’t directly benefit from the intern.

But we continue to subject ourselves to this slave labor of sorts because, unfortunately, we don’t have any other choice.

In a column for The New York Times, Tim Kreider urges the younger generation to stand up for ourselves, yet we aren’t in the position to do so. Sure, he’s right; we shouldn’t “give it away,” and no, it isn’t “professionally or socially acceptable.” But what should we do instead?

If we fight for our rights, as two former Condé Nast interns did, it can become a selfish act. The major magazine publication company that produces Vogue, The New Yorker and GQ terminated its internship program on Oct. 23. This reduces the amount of opportunities for next year and ends some students’ dreams to work at specific publications. Worst of all, the already competitive search just became even tighter for aspiring magazine journalists.

I empathize with those students who hoped to intern at a Condé Nast publication, but because of defendants like Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib, that opportunity has vanished.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be Ballinger or Leib. Don’t ruin it for everyone.

So, we’re stuck. We can’t stand up for our right to be paid because we need internships more than the companies need us individually. Internships have quickly grown into a high-stakes competition.

If you are morally against unpaid or underpaid internships or simply cannot afford to forgo compensation, someone else will take your spot. But even those lucky students who receive internships can lose sight of the purpose of the program.

Internships are everything for college students; they provide a glance into an industry, company and position. They add some credibility to our resumes to help distinguish ours from those of countless other college students.

After the professional internship, we can say we have the necessary skills from interning at company X. And some students, including fellow communication majors, don’t have many alternatives to internships; it’s an expectation.

And I’ve found that that valuable experience is enough and worth more than any money I could earn. There are additional benefits, too, that are overlooked while everyone focuses on the monetary gain: You can live in a new place knowing that you can return to college or your hometown afterward, meet new friends and network with people in the industry.

Really, the money is just the “icing on the cake,” as former Condé Nast intern Emilyn Teh of Cornell University said. Experience should trump any other gain, including money, which has become the focus in professional internships. The discussion surrounding interns’ pay clouds the true benefits of professional internships.

This article isn’t meant to support the unethical and illegal practices of companies. All interns should receive payment, since, even if they’re not labeled as educational, interns provide some benefit to the company. It’s vital to remain a watchdog on these institutions and criticize as necessary. But take the experience for what it’s worth: a beginning to a career path. And seriously, forget the money.