One on One: Don’t underestimate unpaid internships

As students begin to fill out applications for spring internships across D.C., two Hatchet opinions writers reflect on the major takeaways from their summer internships.

ROBIN JONES KERR: Welcome to “One on One,” a new series The Hatchet’s opinions section is excited to roll out this year. Every so often, a pair of opinions writers will discuss their personal experiences and reactions to a topic that applies to all GW students.

For our first installment, senior columnist Justin Peligri and I chatted about something we unexpectedly shared in common this past summer: We both had internships at news organizations that cater to specific, activist audiences, and because of the nature of those publications, we were both unpaid. So there’s a lot to unpack here!

JUSTIN PELIGRI: There certainly is, so I’m glad we’re taking this opportunity to reflect back on our summers and consider the benefits of our experiences that we might not have acknowledged at the beginning of the hectic school year.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Robin Jones Kerr

RJK: I was lucky enough to be offered an editorial internship at Ms. magazine, the iconic feminist publication that rode the wave – hell, created the wave – of feminism in the 1960s and ‘70s.

I got to write about whatever I was passionate about: campus sexual assault, women in the media, even diversity in athletics. I spent a whole week researching Terry Richardson, the notoriously foul fashion photographer.

That in and of itself proved to be one of the most simultaneously upsetting and rewarding writing experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I had to conduct in-depth research into his many transgressions – namely, downright reprehensible behavior with models on set. Although it was emotionally trying, I got to publish a strong, impassioned piece that I can now use as a clip to submit with future job applications.

And, because the Ms. offices are located in downtown Beverly Hills, I got to spend the summer in my new favorite state: California.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

JP: Like many other students, I stayed in the District this summer. For my part-time internship at The Washington Blade, a D.C.-based publication that brands itself as “America’s gay news source,” I didn’t earn an hourly wage. Of course, not getting compensated for your work isn’t ideal, and over the past few years, we’ve seen students speak out against the practice, filing lawsuits against high-profile companies.

And Robin, we should point out that many of the other internships GW students may be hoping to score are unpaid, too. That includes GW favorites like gigs on Capitol Hill, as well as at the State Department. I bet no one told you that harsh reality on your campus tour.

But there’s a lot to be earned from an unpaid internship. I got to have conversations with local lesbian brewery owners, a transgender priest and professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe, to name a few.

I can’t put a price on the opportunity to contribute to a specialty news publication while also getting to know the reporters and editors who have played an important role in propelling the American LGBT rights movement forward: The Blade was the first and only LGBT news publication admitted to the White House pool rotation last year.

RJK: Right, if there was one big downside to my experience, it’s that I shipped off to California, worked 40-hour weeks, commuted two hours a day, fact-checked every word of feature articles, helped out however I was needed – all for peanuts. It was, like yours, also an unpaid internship.

It was the second summer in a row I worked a full-time internship without being paid, so you could say I have a couple thoughts on the subject, Justin. The first was the summer after my sophomore year, when I was a communications intern at the National Organization for Women.

In neither of these cases did I ever resent my employer because they weren’t paying me. Call me brainwashed if you want, but I was truly honored to work at places that I had learned about in my history textbooks (well, my women’s studies textbooks).

Gloria Steinem, one of the pioneers of the mid-century women’s liberation movement, founded Ms. and is still on the masthead. When the other interns and I gushed about the icon to our editor, our editor emailed her – and Gloria responded, inviting us all to her office in New York for coffee. Another name on the masthead: Robin Morgan, a feminist scholar and writer. I kid you not, my mother was reading Morgan’s book while she was pregnant with me and thought Robin was a pretty name. I was CC-ed on emails to my namesake.

When the latest issue of Ms. hits newsstands, my name will be on the masthead right alongside these women. That’s something you probably could never get at a larger organization.

Nine bucks an hour? I’d rather have coffee with Gloria.

JP: Students at GW are pretty lucky, as 90 percent of us are able to intern, often during the school year. And if you do it right, there’s a lot more an internship can get you than merely a line on a résumé. Namely, the opportunity to meet industry movers and shakers. At the end of the day, it’s the connections I’ve made with reporters, television producers and other professionals that added value to my experience.

RJK: Justin and I worked at small operations that couldn’t afford to pay their interns. But I think for both of us, the quality of our experiences by far made up for missing out on paychecks. We had the chance to write about topics we were passionate about and meet important people – both in our fields and in history.

I’d encourage students to, as you apply for your next internship, look outside the box of paid work if you are financially able to: You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist. Robin Jones Kerr, a senior majoring in journalism, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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