A summer internship can look great on a resume. Perhaps just as important for many Yalies, it can provide a nifty answer to that inevitable question, “So, what are you doing this summer?” But, like so many other facets of life at Yale, the internship experience is divided along class lines. Central to the internship experience, it turns out, is pervasive inequality. What do I mean? Well, to help answer that question, I turn to Shanaz Chowdhery ’13.
Two years ago, Chowdhery wrote her senior essay about summer internships. Though internships have nearly become a “staple” of college life, especially at elite schools, Chowdhery wrote, “very little is known about them: their rise, number and distribution across fields, and perhaps most importantly, the social and economic circumstances surrounding the internship experience.” She was generous enough to share the essay with me, and I thought it was so important that I decided to share it with you (Hey, if David Brooks can abdicate writing to “highlight” social science research, so can I).
On Dec. 12, 2012, Chowdhery sent an email to roughly 400 Yale undergrads. She chose to send her email around 9:00 p.m. on the first night of reading period — “a time in which many students are in their rooms searching for sources of procrastination.” She obtained 148 responses from sophomores, juniors and seniors. Later, in February 2013, Chowdhery personally interviewed 20 of these students.
The results of her survey were simultaneously shocking and not surprising at all. Though 63 percent of respondents had participated in an unpaid internship, fewer than half of those on full or partial aid had done so, compared with 85 percent of students not on aid. Indeed, “students on no financial aid were three times more likely to have an unpaid internship than students on full financial aid.”
Predictably, nearly 90 percent of students not on aid receive familial assistance to finance an unpaid internship, while only 43 percent of those on aid could depend on such assistance.
This is all predictable enough. But in spite of a bootstraps narrative that might suggest otherwise, when students are paid for their internships, those who do not receive financial aid actually get paid more.
Even more disturbingly, students on no aid receive fellowships and/or scholarships to fund unpaid internships at twice the rate as those on full aid. “[I]t seems,” Chowdhery wrote, “the fellowship process is further contributing to a system which already reproduces and reinforces class privilege.”
Chowdhery charted the “informal codes of conduct that are not written down, but rather passed from person to person, that can contribute to the inequalities seen in the internship process.” She noted that, to some extent, the privileges of Yale bridge the divide that separates students on aid and students not on aid; nonetheless, “survey and interview data do reveal discrepancies between those with and without financial resources.”
Chowdhery also looked at STEM students participating in research fellowships that are “essentially internships.” Research opportunities, it turns out, are “significantly easier” to obtain than traditional internships. Yet Yale, she found, allocates more than twice the amount of money to students pursuing research opportunities than to those pursuing traditional internships. Chowdhery does not speculate about Yale’s motives in this regard, but I would suggest that Yale STEM departments rely on student-labor to perform the research necessary for the University to obtain government grants, industry funding and prestige. Yale, as always, is acting in its self-interest, and it is low-income, non-STEM students trying to have meaningful summer experiences who lose out.
After finishing Chowdhery’s essay, I was struck by two thoughts. First, many of the inequalities that pervade the internship process are not Yale’s fault; access to social contacts or increased willingness to ask questions of wealthier students reflects a broader societal system of privilege and inequality. Inequality runs deep, and Yale cannot be expected to solve all of the problems of a country riven by unfairness.
Yet, as President Salovey memorably said in last year’s freshman address, “Yale is such a great equalizer most of the time.” Not only does Yale have a responsibility to attempt to address pervasive inequalities, but it claims to do so already. The fact that students on no aid receive fellowships and/or scholarships at nearly twice the rate of those on aid is something the University could — and should — address. Further, Yale could follow the University of Chicago’s model and guarantee students on financial aid a paid internship after their freshman year.
Summer is coming. And with it, yet more inequality. We can do better.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.