FUSE internship funding saw decrease during COVID-19 pandemic


Though the premise of unpaid internships has been challenged in recent years, many students at the College of William and Mary continue to accept these opportunities for the professional experience and connections they provide. Critics of unpaid internships also denounce the inequities they create—students from wealthier backgrounds have the means to cover travel and living expenses without a source of income that a paid internship provides. 

For students with unpaid internships, the Cohen Career Center offers Funding for Unpaid Summer Experiences, or FUSE funding. To be eligible for FUSE funding, students must be continuing undergraduates, be in good academic standing and importantly, have secured and accepted an internship before applying. 

The internship must be formal — it cannot be independent study, and it cannot be affiliated with the College. Recipients must complete their internship with a single entity between May and August, and generally must complete a minimum number of hours, which varies depending on source of funding.

FUSE funding that is administered by the Cohen Center comes in two forms: the Cohen Career Center Internship Fund, which awards up to $4,000 per person, and the Dobson-Thaker Internship Endowment. The Cohen Internship Fund specifies that it prioritizes applicants with “necessarily unpaid” internships, typically those in the non-profit or education sectors or in the government. Internships with for-profit firms, media organizations or “entrepreneurially-oriented” companies require further justification for why they are unpaid.  

The FUSE funding webpage says all candidates are evaluated on academic standing, disciplinary status, nature of the internship and the connection between the internship and the applicant’s career interests.

Assistant Director for Experiential Learning and FUSE Program Manager Lisa Randolph said that FUSE funding is meant to cover living expenses.

“It is an option for students to apply on a budget-based model for funding for living expenses if they’re doing unpaid internships over the summer,” Randolph said. “So it’s not meant to be pay for internships, it’s meant to supplement their living expenses.”

Since 2016, 106 students have received over $250,000 in FUSE funding, with an average award hovering around $2,300. The number of applicants peaked in 2017, with 92 students. Of those 92 applicants, only 24 received funding, for an acceptance rate of 26%. The amount of funding granted, however, peaked in 2019, with $70,691.40 awarded to 33 recipients. 

“I would say that they’re very motivated students,” Randolph said. “They do have to throughout the summer do video reflections, so I do get to see their growth and progress throughout the summer, which is really cool. This past summer, we had two people in Hawaii doing their internships, so that’s interesting. They’re often students who are going into career fields that don't offer a lot, if any, paid internships. So this allows them to be able to take advantage of those opportunities and get experience.”

Cady Hammer ’22 received FUSE funding to complete an internship with the United States World War I Centennial Commission as a research and development intern during the summer of 2019. She did genealogical research, researching high-profile families with relatives who fought in WWI and identifying potential donors for the construction of a national memorial.

“I was looking to do an internship in Washington D.C. and I needed some additional funding to make that a little more feasible for my family and I,” Hammer said. “It was an unpaid internship but a fantastic opportunity.”

“I was looking to do an internship in Washington D.C. and I needed some additional funding to make that a little more feasible for my family and I,” Hammer said. “It was an unpaid internship but a fantastic opportunity.”

The number of awards decreased drastically in 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Only five applicants received $3,516.34 in funding, despite the Cohen Center receiving 43 applications — most of those applicants had their internships cancelled due to the pandemic and were no longer eligible. 

When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on FUSE funding, Randolph said the program slowed down. 

“It’s been significantly less over the last couple of years because lots of internships have gotten cancelled and lots are virtual,” Randolph said.

Funding rebounded somewhat in 2021, despite a decrease in applications. Of 28 total applications, only 16 were eligible for funding. Thirteen of those applications were successful and received a total of $29,080.76 in funding. Of the 16 applications, a plurality were government, public policy or international relations majors. Half of applicants intended to intern out of state, with five intending to work in DC or Northern Virginia, and three intending to work remotely. Applicants were also 75% women. 

Randolph said funding mostly comes from donations and does not take into account financial need. Because FUSE is not a scholarship program, Randolph said its overall funding has decreased in recent years, despite the For the Bold campaign’s focus on scholarships. Randolph also cited overall budget cuts for the decrease.

“Part of it comes from our parent and family fund and part of it comes through other donors through the career center,” Randolph said. 

One hurdle for many students in acquiring FUSE funding is the requirement that a student have secured an internship before the April deadline. Many students don’t hear back from internships in time to make this deadline. Randolph acknowledged this challenge, but said the Cohen Center can’t change the deadline for tax purposes.

“They can’t apply unless they already have an internship secured,” Randolph said. “Yes, it definitely impacts some people. We have to do that for our fiscal year — we have to get things wrapped up within a fiscal year. So to be able to make that happen, that’s why we have to have the deadlines that we have.”

While universal paid internships would be great, Randolph said, growth of the FUSE program in the meantime helps students access opportunities in industries that don’t pay interns. She said that President Katherine Rowe has placed a focus on internships that has her optimistic for the future.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to get to a point where all internships are paid — it would be amazing if it was, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Randolph said. “Like, small nonprofits cannot pay people. But yes, I would love to see the program grow for sure.”

Hammer encouraged people to apply to FUSE funding if they meet the requirements. 

“I would say go for it,” “If your financial need is preventing you from taking these opportunities, there’s no better way to get there than to go ahead and apply for FUSE funding. They have a lot of funds available — more funds than you would think — for students to do these unpaid internships that they would not normally be able to do.”


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