Slice of Life: Confessions of a paid intern

I accepted the offer as soon as I heard the magical phrase “paid internship” and I quit as soon as I heard the words “toilet cleaning.”

Filling in data logs, running around D.C. dropping off bank deposits in the dense heat of summer and reorganizing moldy accounting books from the 1980s seemed rather doable, as long as I got my $8-an-hour paycheck at the end of week. But bathroom cleaning was where I drew the line.

Given my summer experience, searching for internships for next spring leaves me with a mixed sense of utter dread and anticipation. Internship shopping seems to boil down to one question: Do I take the unpaid internship knowing I will have to take on another job, or will I risk another fiasco in which “intern” and “in-house maid” are interchangeable?

In April, the New York Times wrote a controversial piece about the legality of hiring unpaid interns for free labor. Soon after, media outlets like the Huffington Post, DCist, and even The Hatchet joined the controversial chorus. Now, five months later, how is GW helping students navigate the 2010-2011 paid and unpaid internship cycle?

When I asked the GW Career Center about its internship policy I received the following statement from Executive Director Marva Gumbs Jennings:

“To provide support to students interested in experience outside the classroom, the GW Career Center serves as a clearinghouse for full-time, part-time, internship and other experiences in the local region and beyond through the GWork database. We allow employers to post their internships in GWork to the attention of GW students providing the latter an opportunity to assess which internship may be best for them.”

The fact that our Career Center simply acts as a “clearinghouse” – impersonally spewing out background checks and crowd-sourced student information about potential employers – is an issue.

The Career Center should be actively rooting for us: blowing horns and holding giant megaphones and foam fingers at every interview.

Our parents may have worked their first jobs for the pay of a McDonald’s hamburger in the 1970s, but it seems fall 2010, D.C. interns are up against something 10 times fiercer than meager wages. We are asked to clean bathroom handles for extremely anal bosses, we stand out in the freezing rain campaigning for money from blasé businessmen, and – fulfilling every intern stereotype – we get coffee for our bosses.

This city runs on interns the way oil tankers run on petroleum, and yet the internship market often seems like open hunting season in a metropolitan jungle. Given these realities, the Career Center should be like a proud parent, the chairman of our personal fan club even, when we apply for internships, instead of leading us astray.

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