Unpaid internships worth the sacrifice


Over winter break my sophomore year, I had a sudden epiphany that I could not spend another summer in the slow-paced southern town that I called home. I proudly told my parents and anyone else who would listen that I was finally going to live in Washington, D.C. to try my hand at being a city girl with an important job. I had it all planned out: I would take the metro, wear pencil skirts and maybe even buy another second-hand blazer.

What I didn’t know at the time was where to start — or even when. I came back to school early to set up an appointment at the Cohen Career Center. I figured, at the very least, it could tell me what kind of internships a sophomore English major should be applying to and where to look for them.

Ahh, but I was young and naïve. I thought six months was plenty of time. I thought that internships would pay.

In my meeting at the Career Center, I learned that something like 90 percent of internships are gained through networking. But what does networking even mean? My dad is a truck driver, so he couldn’t exactly set me up with a publisher. Who was I supposed to network with? Since I could not produce a list of people who had connections relatively close to my career goals, I ended up spending months scouring the Career Center website for jobs — or even worse, googling to find jobs — and asking friends to review my resume.

I must have applied to over a dozen positions, in the middle of scholarship renewal and midterm season, which made it even more stress inducing. I was also very nearly the victim of an employment scam (because no matter how real a company is, the contact on a job listing site just might not be who they say they are). Again, I was duped by the naïveté of my oh-so-recent youth.

After all that, I finally received a message from Smithsonian Folkways, the record label of the Smithsonian. As glamorous as that sounded, I felt entirely disenchanted, especially when I re-read the application to find that it paid a whopping $0 for the entirety of my summer. Despite my disappointment, I went through with the interview. I had resources: my savings and an aunt just outside of Washington who offered me free housing. I figured I could make it work.

And I did. I worked two jobs last summer, one an extremely tiring hostess job, and the other my exciting Washington power position that mainly involved typing and listening to music.

I do not say all this to scare anyone. I just want to make it clear that internships are hard, especially those that are unpaid. With the amount of money I spent on food and the metro, I worked constantly just to break even — with the privilege of free housing, I remind you. But that experience taught me a lot, which I will break down as friendly advice.

One, if you’re interested in interning, start thinking about it early on. Now isn’t a bad time to start if you haven’t yet. Two, tell everyone you know about it, especially people who have interned somewhere before; lots of times we just don’t know about the connections that we have. Three, networking can be just as important when looking for a place to live, not just a place to work. Sometimes you have to rely on family and friends if you can’t find a paid gig. Four, don’t underestimate a job without a fancy title or connection. My restaurant job in the middle of Dupont Circle introduced me to so many great people. I met tourists, executives and just all-around interesting people who taught me about my long-term goals more than my office job ever did. I discovered my passion for communication working with my fellow Salvadoran staff and translating for Spanish-speaking guests.

Overall, the interning process is a stressful part of college for lots of us who are stuck in the middle, trying to figure out post-grad plans and hone our passions alongside our skills. No matter how stressful it becomes, I advise you to trust yourself, your skills and your instincts. We all made it to this school, and we are all incredibly intelligent and capable. So, whether you apply to a restaurant job, a paid corporate position or a small-scale unpaid internship, take the time to remind yourself that you are worth all the effort you put in, and I think that makes the hard parts so much easier.

Email Kiana Espinoza at kaespinoza@email.wm.edu.


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