Solving GW’s ‘internship culture’ problem will take concrete measures

Students rushing to class in suits and packing their calendars full of work and school obligations led University President Thomas LeBlanc to express concern about the student body’s unhealthy “internship culture” last month. LeBlanc said tackling the issue would be one of his top priorities this year, along with discussing the negative effects of social media.

But by focusing on social media and internships, LeBlanc is out of touch with the root of students’ problems on campus. LeBlanc is highlighting two issues without reporting a plan to address them. If LeBlanc intends to focus on internships, which are often seen as a pivotal part of the GW experience, he needs to work toward realistic solutions that will actually help students.

Like at many universities, the culture at GW is competitive and it can lead to an enormous pressure on students who feel like they need to get an internship as soon as they arrive on campus. Juggling a packed class schedule, homework and a part time internship is stressful, so LeBlanc isn’t wrong in criticizing that.

Approximately 68 percent of students had one or more internships during the four years they attended GW, but that amount is much less than some peer institutions. At Northeastern University, 96 percent of students complete an internship in their four years because the school’s co-op program requires most students to take on a position. Meanwhile, 90 percent of students at Boston University and 89 percent of students at Tufts University have had an internship.

Internships may not be as widespread at GW as they are at other schools, but many students still juggle a heavy course load with these positions. While it can be a lot of work to handle and cause stress for students, LeBlanc must recognize that many students come to GW for internship opportunities available because of its central location in the District and the University often advertises itself to prospective students as a center for internships.

To effectively address the problems with internships, LeBlanc must enact changes that mitigate the negative effects that stem from them, because internships alone are not the problem.

LeBlanc said at a Faculty Senate meeting last month that students are hardly on campus because they are running from classes to internships. So if he wants students to stay on campus, he must ensure that there are more opportunities on campus for students to gain work experience. The value of internships is difficult to replicate, but on-campus opportunities like research could also benefit students without drawing them away from campus.

Due to the lack of a formal system in which students can find research opportunities at GW, it is difficult for students to find positions aiding professors’ projects. Students have also said officials do not prioritize or fund social science research as widely as science, technology, engineering and mathematics research. As LeBlanc works to improve research at GW, providing more undergraduate research opportunities and creating a place these openings are listed could address two of his priorities at the same time.

While there is some merit to critiques of internship culture at GW, most students wouldn’t point at internships as the root of their problems on campus and if they do, many of the problems are more closely related to other issues than the internships themselves.

Students feel the need to obtain an internship because of the large sticker price that comes with attending GW. With tuition nearly $70,000 per academic year, students feel like they need to get as much work experience while at GW as possible before graduating. But these opportunities are often unpaid, which can prompt further affordability issues for students.

Administrators could relieve the costs of an unpaid internship by expanding internship grants and funds. The main existing fund, the Knowledge in Action Career Internship Fund, is tailored for only a handful of students. Students who intern at companies instead of non-profit organizations are forced to foot the bill of an unpaid position, but creating a more inclusive support option could help students afford to take positive and alleviate stress that comes with internships. If the University provided more money in grants and scholarships to lessen the out-of-pocket costs students face while working internships, students could take on internships without financial stress that contributes to a negative “internship culture.”

Incorporating Metro passes for each student included in their tuition, as American University has, is another way to mitigate an issue related to internships because travel costs often plague students who travel to work on a regular basis. Students have called for the pass in the past, but officials rejected a referendum proposing the program in 2016.

While these solutions may seem small, they are simple ways to work toward solving the problem of internships on campus. As LeBlanc focuses on internships in the next year, it is imperative that he looks at small solutions related to the positions, like the few we suggest, instead of speaking generally about the problem with no tangible plans to alleviate it.

Students won’t stop taking on internship positions. So instead of criticizing the job, LeBlanc must focus on solutions that will improve students’ lives while they balance a job and school. By promoting more on-campus opportunities and implementing measures that make going to GW and holding an internship more affordable, LeBlanc could shape students’ experience in a meaningful way and alleviate the stress of internships.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Renee Pineda and contributing opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of managing editor Matt Cullen, design editor Zach Slotkin, managing director Elise Zaidi, sports editor Barbara Alberts and culture editor Margot Dynes.

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