Unpaid internship benefits questioned

The days of working for free may be coming to an end for college-aged students across the country.

According to an April 2 article in the New York Times, states like California and New York are cracking down on the practice of using interns as free labor, and universities are telling businesses that employ unpaid interns that students’ work is not free.

At GW, many students do internships outside of their coursework or during the summer. Some do internships for credit, putting the minimum costs of an internship at more than $1,300, the cost of a credit at GW.

But Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Donald Lehman said he believes that some internships are not of value to students. In 2005, a task force commissioned by Lehman found that students agreed that internships were often disconnected from studies. Now, Lehman is using those findings to encourage deans to help students find “meaningful” internships.

“We had several students on the committee and one of the biggest complaints is one that many of the internships undertaken by students at GW are not related to their academic programs,” Lehman said. “Moreover, they complained that many of the internships are not meaningful, that they end up doing a lot of the work that no one else wants to do.”

Some students said they thought their internships were worth the money for reasons other than simply being meaningful and academically oriented.

Senior Mark Abramson said his internship was worth the money, as the job got him out of the lecture hall.

“Yeah, I’m paying for it, but instead of this internship I would have taken a class instead, and it’s just a swap for a class time,” he said.

Other college students say they believe finding the right internship is so important that they are willing to pay more than $13,000 for it. The Semester in Washington Program in the School of Media and Public Affairs is an internship program for non-GW students who want to live and work in D.C.

Amos Gelb, the program’s director, said he works to bring students from around the country into contact with their ideal organization in D.C.

“You’re paying for my experience and connections, advising and ability to find not just a great internship, but the right internship for you,” says Gelb. “Everybody that does my course should be able to say that it’s worth at least twice as much as they paid for this experience.”

Tom Manion, a representative from The Fund for American Studies, an internship program that works with Georgetown, agreed that for a graduate to be competitive, he or she must have completed internships in college.

Of those struggling to make their way through college while attempting to take an unpaid internship, he said, “Most see it as an investment.”

“In the same way that students make sacrifices to fund their college career, it’s really worth it to take out loans, approaching friends and family to help finance them,” he said. “While it’s painful and difficult to do, it’s definitely doable. You just need to plan and not decide in April or May that you’re going to do this.”

It is unknown if legislation to counter the growth of unpaid internships will make it to the District. The Times report said it is hard to move against firms who may be in violation of this type of law, as students often do not want to cause problems. Also, the guidelines for interns is often unclear for employers.

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