Internships: indentured servitude or worthy right of passage?

Yalies tend to be overachievers. Loath to “waste” a summer, hundreds of us join the throngs of college students nationwide who find internships during their time off. In a 2008 survey, 50 percent of graduating seniors reported participating in internships, according to The National Association of Colleges and Employers.

I caught up with some summer interns to hear their stories — from mucking out calves at a dairy farm to betting on horse races and being condescended by the first lady of Chile. Such a broad range of experiences is the result of how varied internships can be in nature: they can be paid or unpaid, last all summer or just a few weeks. And while some are formal, established programs with corporate gyms and company cars, others are tossed together by an office manager and shaped by the intern’s personal input.

The Yale Undergraduate Career Services is devoted not only to “career counseling, professional school advising, employment and career development resources,” but it “directs summer internship programs in the U.S. and abroad,” according to its website.

UCS’ Bulldogs Across America sends students to nine cities around the country, putting them in contact with local businesses and Yale residents in their host cities.

David Burt ’13 participated in the Louisville branch — the original Bulldogs Across America program, termed “Bulldogs in the Bluegrass.” The internship, housed in Bellarmine University, included a range of activities from meeting the mayor and congressman to cliff jumping in the Ohio river.

“Especially fun was ‘Downs after Dark,’” said Burt. The interns were brought to night horse racing at Churchill Downs, where each bulldog was given $100 to bet on the races.

Another program, Yale in Hollywood, offers experience in the film industry. Through the Yale network in the area, the program is supplemented by a series of speakers, coffee shop conversations and film screening events.

Many businesses and institutions outside of Yale offer structured programs as well, such as the Newsroom Summer Internship at the Boston Globe. Patrick Lee, SY ’11, served as a health science reporter at the paper and was given the full setup – cubicle, phone extension and journalist’s notebook.

“You get to do what a staff reporter would do. They take you seriously, so it’s a lot of pressure, but it’s really exciting,” said Lee.

Lee was involved in blogging and photographing and covered topics such as hospital food across America, for which he was sent to San Francisco and Rhode Island.

Other, more entrepreneurial students, find jobs outside of formal programs, as did Baobao Zhang ’13, who earned an internship at PBS (Baobao is a staff reporter for the News).

“I randomly read that Jon Meacham was going to be the host of a new TV show, ‘Need to Know.’ I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time, because of his books,” said Zhang. After contacting the show’s executive producer and offering to intern for the summer, she was interviewed in New York and given the job, she said.

“Our show got really bad reviews when it first came out, but it was kind of exciting to work on a new show,” said Zhang. Working in preproduction, she did research in various areas, such as homegrown terrorism, sunscreen, gun control, nuclear terrorism and the history of blood donations. Despite what she described as a steep learning curve, Zhang developed a relationship with Meacham and was hired to help research for his new book on Thomas Jefferson.

Jordan Schneider ’12 spent the summer working with the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile. Schneider was involved in Public Affairs with the embassy, where he met various South American civic leaders, including the first lady of Chile. After introducing himself as “just an intern,” the first lady, “with perfect comedic timing, and in a perfectly sarcastic American accent, said ‘Yeah, I know,’ and walked away,” Schneider recalled.

Throughout his four years, Matthew George ’11, has participated in several internship programs. George began with a Yale program, studying abroad in Italy, then planned his own theater-based trip to Rwanda and this past summer, worked at a Dairy Farm in New York. While George’s first two endeavors had an educational focus, the summer job before his senior year was informed by curiosity about his family history — George’s father grew up on the same dairy farm.

As an American Studies major, George has always been interested in the different paths of life in America, he said. Having no prior experience with agriculture, George learned a great deal from the time he spent on the farm.

“I wanted to spend a summer not doing something intellectual — we spend the whole school year doing that. But I learned that intellectual people find something to take away from any experience,” George remarked.

Not all internships end as well as students hope they will and only some feature institutionalized disrespect from dignitaries. Alison Greenberg had an unpaid internship at a regional magazine in Philadelphia for the first part of the summer.

“It was a really interesting internship in the beginning,” she said, “because you get to read a lot of interesting stories while fact checking.” Other than a couple clips that were published, however, Greenberg’s duties did not grow beyond copyediting.

“It all seemed fine, I was learning the ropes, but we never progressed,” Greenberg said. She was frustrated by the lack of a goal and advice from staff writers of the magazine.

“We were given no guidance,” she said, “The internship lead me to believe it wasn’t even an internship – it was more like slave labor.”

Greenberg worked for the paper for approximately two months, but the lack of pay and the nature of the work became a concern. A subsequent interaction with the boss began with a request for a bigger time commitment from Greenberg, and ended with her being fired.

“I probably learned more from that than from a good internship,” she said. After the unpleasant experience at the magazine, she began a blog under the pseudonym, “the Ex-Intern,” subtitled “sticking it to the man (who never even paid me).” Check out http://www.theexintern.blogspot.com/

Greenberg observed that internships in journalism are either the chance of a lifetime or slave labor.

“It’s all kind of a hoax – the internship system is based on the model of the apprentice. The apprentice had a goal in mind, which was to become the master and he would amass a lot of experience in order to progress towards that goal. But an internship is stagnant. It is often nothing more than free work for a company so you can put a line in your resume,” she said.

But is that line worth it? Maybe.


The Ideal Internship:

Finding an internship can be as difficult and competitive as the college search process (which we are all a bit too familiar with). Yalies weigh in to help you find the summer stint of your dreams.

Baobao Zhang ’13:

I would just say, when you start out, it’s best to work for a smaller organization or team. You get more personalized attention in a more intimate group, which is more valuable than trying to go for a big name internship.

Alison Greenberg:

It’s all about the leadership. There has to be some example for the interns, like a guide or mentor. When I began, I was nervous, thinking ‘this is the corporate world, I should defer to my elders.’ In the future, I’ll be more careful about where I work and ask the question up front: ‘Am I going to be your bitch, or do real work?

Matthew George ’11:

I didn’t go [to the dairy farm] for any particular angle, story, study etc. The whole point was just to get to know what life on a farm is like. There is so much agency in creating your own experience — this summer was totally me. There’s so much more ownership, and that is much more satisfying. When you go out on a limb like that, you get pushed to the limit, and it might make you despair at times. But at the end of the day, the agency is something that’s totally worth it. If you do an internship in banking, there’s nothing to discover, and you don’t own the experience.

Patrick Lee ’11:

Seek out a place where they really need interns. That way you won’t just be doing clerical stuff like answering phones. Find something you’re interested in, and where they’ll LET you do it. If you find the right program, your name can be in the paper, on the front page. If they have a program, it’s always safe, because they make sure you have a good experience. But sometimes the unadvertised stuff is best, because you carve our your place, and really get to be part of the team. And apply early! Deadlines right after school starts.

Correction: Sept. 6, 2010

An earlier version of this article misreported the nature of Alison Greenberg’s departure from her internship. She was fired; she did not quit.

Comments

  • Yale 08

    I remember a time when rising Yale seniors would return to Yale nearly as toolish as Harvard types — job offers in hand — after interning at banks, consulting firms, or hedge funds…

    …I miss those days, especially in light of present-day summer internship stories.

  • old grad

    I remember a time when students actually had to earn money (and not just enough to live on) during the summer to help pay for their college education. I think I probably learned more life lessons from my waitressing stints than I would have answering phones at a nonprofit. And, I really did sock enough away to help pay my tuition and living expenses. This generation seems way over-entitled.