Commentary | A summer of learning

The real nature of unpaid internships

At the beginning of every school year (and all year round in IDS conferences), you are bound to hear the following: “I spent my summer in [insert developing country or posh metropolitan city], interning with [grassroots NGO or multi-million dollar conglomerate]. It was soooo rewarding.”

The unpaid internship is a staple of many university students’ lives. Instead of partying away your summer or working to pay for tuition and basic provisions, many take their four months of freedom to gain the most coveted thing that no amount of class can seem to provide: applicable life experience. What is often seen as extremely useful in the long run, however, produces ridiculous short term consequences: you are literally paying to volunteer. While there may be multiple shelters, food banks, and firms in your hometown, you opt to spend thousands jetting halfway across the world to volunteer in an orphanage instead.

I speak as one of many students who chose to do this. I decided that I was going to break my pattern of weird summer jobs (including working in a cheese department of a grocery store and a Liz Claiborne outlet) to get some work experience that I was not embarrassed to have on my resume.  I also wanted an opportunity to travel, so I decided to barrage my extended family for accommodation. I found myself an internship with a small, local human rights NGO in New Delhi. I justified my lack of income by telling myself that, with this experience, I could get a paid internship next summer. I constantly reassured myself that even if I had to live off Ramen noodles for a year afterwards, I would be gaining invaluable life experience and that fighting off food poisoning for a summer would build my character and connect me with my roots.

The following is a generalized, however realistic, list of the outcomes and situations many students face in their unpaid internships. These were inspired by my own experiences, my friends, and my facebook newsfeed:

1) You wash away your white guilt by taking copious amounts of pictures with orphaned minorities. You re-think your materialistic, western life and vow to spend that extra money on the fair trade blend the next time you are at a Second Cup.

2) You go to a war-torn conflict zone and find that you can’t actually leave your house without fear of getting entwined in some of said ongoing ethnic conflict.

3) You inadvertently violate labour laws by working fifty hour weeks, reading and prepping 77 pages per day, and end up doing work that your unprepared PHD supervisor claims the credit for in a group meeting.

4) You live in a house with other foreign volunteers and have various, out-of-Africa inspired flings in between your community development planning.

5) Most commonly, you put your expensive and overworked degree to good use by spending your days photocopying things, wasting hours on stumbleupon, and going on coffee runs.

While these seem to be the cynical, stereotypical outcomes of many experiences, the right kind of internship can also prove to be worthwhile. With a good internship, you may experience the world and the life described in your stacks of readings. After years of being taught about organizations, places, and issues, you can finally experience them in real life. You can meet like-minded people from around the world with similar ambitions, goals, and lifestyles. You have the flexibility to travel and explore the city and country you are working in – something you wouldn’t necessarily have the time do to on a paid job (which is more likely to be achieved by venturing out of the token ex-pat ridden cafe in your area and meeting locals).  You may even get the chance to travel with your organization as well and do field work. You may also make invaluable contacts with people you work with, who can help you acquire those coveted letters of reference (which is good if you are like me and go to the departmental “meet your professors” wine and cheeses just to eat the cheese).

And when you get back to the gloomy halls of the library and crack open that 500 page course pack, suddenly statistics won’t feel so static. Your papers on the topic will feel personal, knowledgeable, and you will actually find yourself enjoying writing them. You can narrow down your interests and specializations, and you may even have some idea of what you want to do at the scary moment when you graduate. Finally, you will actually have the opportunity to feel interested and passionate about your degree after midterms and exams make you hate and resent it for most of the school year.

They may appear pretentious, they may be exploitative, and you will probably be out of cash come September. It’s probably smarter to spend your summer making money, but if you choose them well, unpaid internships can amount to a completely different kind of value.

Amar Nijhawan is a U2 Political Science and International Development Studies student. You can reach her at