Sarah Blugis: Experience is payment enough

Imagine a GW campus where students do little else but attend classes. The average week consists of sitting in a classroom and doing homework, getting a few extra hours of sleep, and repeating this monotonous routine the next day.

In this fictitious world, internships don’t exist, and they aren’t part of the GW culture like they are now.

This might sound absurd – but it could soon become the reality.

Even though most students enter college anticipating the completion of two or more internships – usually unpaid – these opportunities are under threat.

The debate over whether internships should come with a salary is being fueled by an influx of lawsuits, mostly by former interns who demand compensation. Perhaps the most publicized of these legal battles was the case against Fox Searchlight Pictures, which lost their lawsuit and is now required to pay two interns who worked on the production of the movie “Black Swan.”

But internships without wages do pay. Without them, hands-on experience for college students disappears. Professional references are unavailable. Students lose the valuable opportunity to check out various workplaces.

It is understandable that not all college students can afford to work without being paid. Financial difficulties are increasingly common among undergraduates as the nation recovers from a recession and tuition continues to skyrocket.

But this unfortunate economic situation shouldn’t devalue unpaid internships. While they do not offer immediate monetary benefits for a student’s work, they do offer something else: experience, references, networking opportunities and the all-important resume booster. That’s a long-term investment that will lead to even higher salaries later on.

As college students, we jump at the opportunity to gain more experience or pad our resumes during the school year. In fact, most of us do things for which we aren’t immediately compensated. Whether it’s giving tours to prospective students, becoming an executive board member of a student organization or participating in an alternative break, we all put in valuable hours – but we don’t get paid. This time could easily be spent studying or finding a paying job, but most of us are involved because we have convinced ourselves that benefits will pay off in other ways.

The same is true for unpaid internships. They matter for our resumes and our futures, and these lawsuits threaten to take these valuable opportunities away.

An undergraduate resume without internships is a limited one – especially at a school like GW, where so many students intern on the Hill, at partisan think-tanks or lobbying firms. These grin-and-bare-it positions demonstrate a students’ ability to work hard and sacrifice for the bigger picture.

Our advisers, professors and mentors have always told us that to succeed, we need to differentiate ourselves. One unpaid summer internship could be the defining difference between two job candidates. But if these jobs vanish because of legal pressure to pay interns, students won’t be able to have these opportunities which undoubtedly help them in the long run.

In an ideal world, requiring companies to pay their interns would benefit everyone involved. Hiring managers would become more selective, choosing only the hardest working candidates. Interns would be paid. The company itself would have a more valuable employee on its hands. The situation sounds perfect. But is this really what we can expect?

No, it’s not. If laws do change to reflect some public demand, uncompensated internships will become few and far between. Employers might make the argument that they are not able to afford paid interns. These lawsuits could scare away corporations from taking on interns that they now have to compensate. And this hurts unpaid interns far more than the ones filing lawsuits realize.

The money will come later – but only if we accept unpaid internships as an undergraduate rite of passage.

The writer is a sophomore majoring in political communication.

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