One cool midsummer night before classes began, Clare Kane ’14 told me what it was like to be threatened by a man with a gun.

We were sitting in her freshman counselor room on Old Campus. Welch residents who had just moved in interrupted our conversation every couple of minutes. Each time, she would pause to give them advice about the mysteries of freshman year.

Her job on campus is very different from the work she did with convicts over what she called a “harrowing” summer. Kane, an English and Ethics, Politics and Economics major, was an investigative intern for the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. That organization is a product of unique circumstances: When citizens in the troubled District of Columbia are arrested, they are tried in the federal legal system. To give residents effective representation against attorneys at the United States Department of Justice, D.C. developed its own investigative division, hiring lawyers, clerks — and interns like Kane.

While Kane exposed herself to violent situations on a near-daily basis and transcribed interviews for cases late into the night, the Public Defender Service did not pay her or any of the 70-odd other interns it employed.

Instead, she subsisted on funding from Yale’s Class of 1960 John Heinz Government Service Fellowship, which provided for an apartment at George Washington University, and John E. Linck & Alanne Headland Linck Fellowship, which covered the rest of her living expenses.

“I couldn’t have afforded to do it myself,” said Kane, who is from a small town in Washington state. Like 55 percent of Yalies, she is on financial aid. She uses her freshman counselor job to cover costs during the school year.

Few other Public Defender Service interns received that kind of University support. In order to have the same experience as Kane, these interns, most of them college students, lived rent-free with family or friends in the D.C. area. Others worked menial jobs, like waiting tables, over weekends.

The other interns’ experience typified those of many college students across the country. To take advantage of unpaid opportunities, these students choose from a small set of routes. They can find their own funding, rely on the support of their parents — or simply give up.

This summer, some former interns have publicly questioned the legality of unpaid internships. Back in June, two interns won a court case against the film studio Fox Searchlight. A New York federal court ruling in their favor set an important precedent: If interns do not receive an educational experience, the judge said, they must be paid at least minimum wage.

Fellowship funding insulates Yale students from the realities of a difficult and rapidly changing summer job market. But even on our campus, there aren’t fellowships for everyone. Some — like the freshman Clare Kane of 2011 — apply for fellowships, but don’t make the cut. As Kane said, you have to learn how to navigate the application process. Sources for funding are skewed toward encouraging work in public service or STEM. Yale’s reputation and deep alumni support may grant its students some institutional advantages, but many miss out on the summer they want.

As arguments about the ethics of unpaid or low-paid internships garner more national attention, Yale’s solution, using fellowships to support some but not all students, will face new questions and louder calls for reform.

* * *

“Glatt and Footman were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are ‘employees,’” federal Judge William H. Pauley wrote in his summary judgment on the Fox Searchlight case. Pauley said that under New York labor law and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, Fox Searchlight had violated minimum wage laws in its treatment of the two former interns. The interns did the work of paid employees, he said. And they should have received compensation for their work.

“There’s not even a pretense that this is a training opportunity,” plaintiff Eric Glatt said, discussing the available intern positions at Fox Searchlight and other studios in a recent phone interview.

Camille Olson, a management-side employment attorney, said that while there is still “some dispute” on federal requirements for an unpaid internship, the consensus is that for these positions to be legal, “ultimately the benefit resides in the intern,” not the employer. This “benefit” can mean pay, education or training, but some version of it is essential in any internship situation. No federal laws require interns to “benefit” the company they are working with.

Interns may not be aware of the specific federal regulations, but some who have worked at organizations like Harper’s Bazaar magazine, The Nation Institute and Gawker have taken action against conditions they call unfair. Some activists demand to at least be paid the minimum wage, and others use lawsuits to win back-pay.

Since he filed his lawsuit, Glatt has worked with Intern Labor Rights, an advocacy group that grew out of Occupy Wall Street and seeks to raise awareness about the damage internships do to what Glatt calls “culture-producing” industries, like film, media and fashion, all popular fields among liberal arts students.

“People have grown accustomed to the idea that if you put ‘intern’ on a job title, you don’t have to pay for it,” he told me.

Glatt mentioned the group’s efforts to raise awareness about unpaid internships by handing out “pay your interns” buttons during New York Fashion Week and outside the United Nations. You can buy a tote bag with the same message for $10.00 on the Intern Labor Rights website.

Glatt is hopeful that unpaid internship positions will be all but eliminated in the near future, even for government work. Fair Pay Campaign, another intern advocacy group he mentioned, has spent months demanding that the White House pay its interns, who are asked to work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. “at least” Monday to Friday and are not offered any help finding housing. But Olson pointed out that federal labor standards for interns do not apply in nonprofit and government offices. Kane and her colleagues at the Public Defender Service had no legal right to expect compensation, and neither do White House interns.

Olson has written about the trend of unpaid internships often, and has argued in The New York Times that unpaid internships can be valuable if they follow the letter and spirit of the law. Students in well-run media internships, for instance, get exposure, bylines and published work.

She is skeptical about whether eliminating these programs is the best solution.

Following recent intern advocacy efforts, “many companies have discontinued internship programs or downsized them,” Olson said. She added that when some companies do start to compensate their interns, they may be less invested in actually educating them. Where an unpaid internship program may have included seminars and training sessions, those features would not be legally necessary in a paid program. “The question is, when companies do [pay], is it the same opportunity?”

In both paid and unpaid internships, college students have rarely had the opportunity to voice their concerns. Glatt pointed out that many see these internships as stepping stones to careers, whether or not the promise of a job materializes. And, while Olson said interns could go to human resources if they think their education is failing federal guidelines, it’s hard for a college student, especially an overambitious Yalie, to risk jeopardizing an opportunity.

“Once you commit, what else are you going to do for the summer?” Olson said.

* * *

Yalies looking for jobs over the summer face the same bleak options as college students nationwide.

Undergraduate Career Services spends a lot of time trying to convince companies to provide for Yalies on the job, according to UCS Director Jeanine Dames. And Yale refuses to provide students with course credit for unpaid (or paid) positions, something that many companies use as legal cover to meet federal requirements.

But sometimes, Dames admitted, UCS can only negotiate for payments as small as a stipend for lunch or transportation. In other cases, such as in fields where employers can count on student interest, UCS may give in and list the job as unpaid.

UCS prioritizes the quantity of jobs it can list before considering anything else.

“We want to make sure that students can find opportunities in all functional areas,” Dames said.

While this mentality does increase the breadth of the career services database, it means that students who cannot afford unpaid positions or negotiate the fellowship process to get funding are often left behind.

Dames’ answer for students looking for experience but worried about paying for their summer costs: “Yale is also very fortunate in that there are fellowships available.”

Log on to the fellowship search page for the Center for International and Professional Experience and you’ll be confronted with a series of checkboxes.

You search for opportunities by keyword, checking off each box as you go. Find your major. State your area of interest. Are you an American citizen? Hit the box and find your match.

When Katharine Konietzko ’14 applied for fellowship funding back in the spring, she went box by box. She knew it would be the summer after her junior year. She knew she was interested in politics and government. She soon located the John Heinz 1960 Fellowship (the same one that Kane received).

More checked boxes got her more results: with her field of interest and gender listed, Konietzko came across- another opportunity, the “Establishing Pathways for Women in Politics” fellowship, which supplemented her funding from the Heinz fellowship.

Dimitri Halikias ’16 also found an opportunity specifically for Yalies like himself. A conservative freshman interested in political writing, Halikias identified one fellowship that fit his needs: a grant through the William F. Buckley Program, which he used to cover a summer at the National Review in New York City.

But Halikias only saw a couple of listings for freshmen back when he did his search.

“There isn’t really a great database outside of [those Yale offers],” he said. “But it just doesn’t have that many things for freshmen who are looking to do humanities or political-related work.”

Not every Yalie fits into the categories the fellowship search has to offer. Not everyone gets “sorted” and finds a match.

Turkish student Sera Tolgay ’14 managed to find one of the few fellowship opportunities for international students, but many of her friends, she said, weren’t as lucky — so they “got paid internships or went home, where they could actually cover the costs.”

Few science students have those kinds of worries, partly because as Dames said, UCS sees STEM as an area of major growth worth serious support.

Walter Hsiang ’15, who worked as a research intern for Novartis, a pharmaceutical company in California, broke into a grin as he told me about the amount of support he got from Yale.

“[As a STEM student] Yale will support anything you want to do,” he said, adding that he’s “never had any trouble finding funding” over his two summers as a Yale student. The summer after his freshman year, Hsiang received $4,200 to do research with a professor on campus.

With the University focusing on STEM, students like Hsiang have vastly more opportunities for support than some of their peers. The CIPE database lists only a handful of fellowships for kids who select “entertainment” or “the arts” as their fields of interest.

Becca Edelman ’14, a film columnist for the News and the president of the Yale Film Society, is pursuing a path in the entertainment industry. This summer, she found a paid internship with producer Scott Rudin, who was behind “Black Swan,” “The Social Network” and several other films.

But a year ago, Edelman worked an unpaid job at ICM Partners, a talent agency in Los Angeles. Living across the country from her home in New York, Edelman knew that though having a car for the summer is almost an industry requirement, she wouldn’t be able to afford one. She was lucky enough to find a bus line that worked for her and ran on time, a rarity for Los Angeles residents.

Edelman said she loved her experience at the agency and found it “nurturing.” She is reconciled to the fact that most entry-level positions in film available to her will not offer pay. “We work in an industry where some entry-level jobs are treated [as] and told that they are expendable,” Edelman said.

Yale has not entirely abandoned students in those industries. UCS recently hired a new associate director for the arts. And CIPE chief and Dean of International Experience Jane Edwards wrote in an email that her office will look to expand support where there is “unmet need.”

“We would like to find more sources of funding for students seeking to apprentice or intern in the arts,” Edwards wrote.

But she did not mention any specific efforts to do so.

UCS and CIPE have a worksheet up to help students who must pay for their own summers. It suggests considering ways to find cheaper housing, as well as looking for help from their communities, friends or family members. Like some of the interns who worked with Clare Kane, Yalies without pay or institutional support may get a part-time job, or as a last resort, take out additional loans. Those recommendations worry intern advocates like David Yamada, the director of the New Workplace Institute and a law professor at Suffolk University Law School.

Yamada said students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, stand to lose a great deal in the unpaid internship market. Alternative experiences are limited. And so they do what they can — or do not apply at all.

* * *

When most Yale students return to New Haven, they are armed with responses to questions about what they “did” with their summer and what goal they accomplished over the last four months.

Rachel Rothberg ’14 doesn’t have a tidy answer. She spent part of her summer studying how to teach English as a second language, another portion conducting research for history professor Jay Winter in Paris and the last section in New Haven, working as a research assistant for Yale’s International Security Studies program.

Unlike many of her friends, Rothberg didn’t complete an internship, and she didn’t secure a job for after graduation.

“I felt a little lost,” Rothberg said. “It seems like everyone wants to have their life planned at 21.”

Rothberg didn’t expect to have this kind of summer during most of her junior year, a period she spent consumed by the highly competitive application process for a consulting internship. When they descend on New Haven in November and December, banking and consulting firms serve up “great food,” explain to students what exactly they do — and promote internship opportunities as springboards to jobs and future success. Students interested in such firms spend February and March caught up in interviews.

Though Rothberg made it to a final round interview at Oliver Wyman, she didn’t receive an internship offer, and decided not to pursue a job in business for the summer.

Rothberg appreciated the time to explore different kinds of work over the summer instead, she said — though she added that she knows many of her peers see that period for their future careers.

Yalies see internships as about security, be it with consulting and finance jobs or between the various stages of their stages of their college careers. David Yin ’15, who worked at Forbes this summer, said he is already anticipating the relief that comes from securing another position.

“Knowing what you’re doing next summer makes your life during the school year 10 times easier,” Yin said.

That’s part of what internships are good for. Then there’s the fact that many believe internships will tell them something about the world, or more pressingly, something about themselves.

Hsiang, the STEM student who spent his summer at Novartis, is a junior this year, but hasn’t yet found a niche he thinks he’ll fully commit to. He admits that he has “career ADHD,” and has changed his focus several times over, partly because Yale funding gives students in his field the flexibility to try a number of very different summer jobs.

“A lot of us [in STEM] feel like we can only become doctors,” he said. “When I came to Yale, that’s what I thought, too.”

Dames at UCS said what students seek to gain from internships is some sort of experience, or understanding, on the job. Yale pitches its students to companies by saying that we have “transferrable skills,” she explained. She always tells students that it’s “good to try things.”

What “trying” means for their future is unclear. Dames said the idea that internships lead to job offers is largely a myth. Last year, 59 percent of graduating seniors with jobs post-Yale secured their positions in their spring semester. This means that, while some lucky students had plans made far in advance, the rest had to strike out on their own yet again.

Eliza Brooke ’13, a former editor for the News, was one of those graduating seniors.

Over the summer, she took a paid internship at TechCrunch that has now evolved into a more lucrative freelance gig.

During the summer after her junior year, Brooke received a fellowship from the News to cover part of her costs as she worked an unpaid internship at T Magazine. But she’s changed her tune now that she’s cut off from Yale’s resources.

“The idea of doing an unpaid internship after graduating is maybe the least appealing thing.”

Correction: Sept. 3

A previous version of this article stated that Rachel Rothberg ’14 worked as a research assistant for Professor Jay Winter and that she felt that she was left out by not interning during her summer. In fact, Rothberg worked as a proofreader and editor for professor Winter and only speculated that, while she enjoyed her experience, other students would be uncomfortable with a summer that did not include an internship or other career opportunity.