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Do unpaid internships pay off?

From the symphony to the local newspaper office to Capitol Hill, thousands of students and recent grads work for free, hoping that an internship will lead to a dream career.

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Even Euan Blair, son of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is working as an unpaid intern in the U.S. Senate, according to news reports.

Whether you're from a famous family or not, in politics, human rights, journalism or the arts, unpaid internships are sometimes the only way to get crucial experience.

A few companies try to sweeten the zero-bucks deal with free airline tickets, subway passes, books and occasionally tuition help, former interns say. But if you're trying to make the rent and pay back loans at the same time, or if you're funding your own way through school, a subway pass or a pile of free books won't help much.

The key question is: Does the unpaid-internship gamble pay off?

No pay or no way
"In the nonprofit world, it's expected and understood that you're not going to get a paid internship," says Megan Freismuth, a recent college graduate and former intern who grew up in Indianapolis.

"I interned pretty much every summer as an undergrad, and those were unpaid," Freismuth says. "I lived at home and also worked a part-time job. It wasn't hard at all. But after college, I moved out to Boston, specifically to intern for Physicians for Human Rights. That got a little tougher.

"At one point, I was swinging three jobs while interning," Freismuth says. "The cost of living in Boston is so much higher than anything in Indianapolis."

It's not easy for the financially strapped to get a start in a world where unpaid internships are expected.

"I think it is difficult, though not impossible, for people who are not at least of middle-class income to enter this field," says Heddy Nam, who works for a nongovernmental organization in New York City called Network 20/20, which educates leaders about foreign policy.

"If you're from a working-class family, this isn't even a possibility," Nam says. "Many of my middle-class friends say that it's difficult for parents to pull off because they are already paying the huge cost of college."

Social class? It's a factor in the workplace
"There definitely is a range of economic backgrounds with people I have worked with," says Nam. "However, most people are from middle- or upper-class families.

"To begin with, everyone in my field is college-educated and has previously held unpaid internship positions. It is rare that a person from a lower-class family will have had these opportunities.

"So if you think about it that way, yes, the field is almost elitist, because while local grassroots organizations do hire people with a high school diploma and a demonstrated interest in their work, bigger international NGOs will never go for that."

But counselors argue that the advantages outweigh the sacrifices.

"If the student is saying, 'Gee, it's not paid, should I do it at all,' they should really look at the potential contacts," says Julie Pickering, the director of Career Services at the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a vice president of the Cooperative Education and Internship Association.

"The pay obviously would be nice, but if students can set themselves up to be successful in the future, those networking contacts are the big payoff. Networking is still the best way to find a job."

Pickering suggests thinking flexibly instead of assuming you'll have to work both days and nights in order to get a start in your field, as she once did.

"Look at the possibility of a part-time unpaid internship so you're not giving up the whole 40 hours. It's almost like a modern job-share for students because it's so important to have that related experience when you interview."

Might turn into full-time work
Though interns and their supervisors emphasized that the point of an internship is not to score a job at that particular organization, anecdotal evidence suggests that it happens sometimes, if not often.

-- Posted: Aug. 1, 2005




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