Op-ed: Stop bureaucratizing students’ internship opportunities

I wandered through Emerson’s internship fair last October and searched for tables hailing a green balloon that indicated a company with an interest in hiring journalism students. After filling out a quick form on the spot at the Malden Access Television table and handing my resume to the representative, I began the application process that landed me my current job.

Four times a week, I take the orange line out to Malden. I cover local issues, compile and edit videos, and pick up smaller tasks in the office. As a result of this, I’ve gained valuable experience reporting, while also compiling loads of work samples to add to my portfolio.

But through the process of landing this internship, and applying to receive class credit for my work, I’ve discovered serious flaws in the way the college handles student internships.

Emerson encourages every student to pursue internship opportunities, and often provides resources to acquire one. In addition to bringing employers to the bi-annual internship fair, the Career Development Center offers to help students with job-searching, resumes, cover letters, and more. They also encourage students to use Handshake, a website that connects students with employers and makes applying to jobs easier. These efforts are necessary and commendable but do not overshadow the glaring issues in the college’s current internship system.

Emerson’s guidelines prevent many underclassmen from pursuing internships even if they can acquire them.

According to the Career Development Center’s website, students must complete two semesters of college, at least one at Emerson, to receive just one credit for at least 50 hours of work. These one-credit internships are called “professional development experiences” and are usually unpaid.

Even if younger students find a way to qualify for the credit, it’s an added expense. Those pursuing one-credit internships, like myself, usually take on a full 16-credit class load. So participating in the professional development experience counts as overloading the maximum class limit and tacks on a $1,438 credit charge for pursuing the internship.

Freshmen, many of whom obviously have not fulfilled this requirement, are not restricted from attending the internship fair or completing applications on Handshake. Though it is widely known that employers prefer to hire students of higher class standing, throngs of freshmen attend the fair each year in search for an internship. And last semester, I was one of those freshmen.

I am only able to pursue my current unpaid position at MATV because of a loophole. I had enough credits from AP courses to qualify as a sophomore during the second semester of my first year at Emerson, thereby fulfilling the requirement to receive the credit.

The two-semester requirement for credit underestimates the capabilities of underclassmen—it assumes that we cannot acquire an internship and juggle the workload of classes and an internship in our first years of college. But the college should not be able to define students’ abilities based on this assumption of our experience and talent.

Students can also only pursue an internship without credit if they get paid, per federal law. The Department of Labor requires for-profit organizations to pay their employees, but interns are not considered as such. And when students aren’t receiving credit or pay for their work, the government does not believe they are benefitting enough from the internships and legally prohibits them from pursuing the position.

But students rarely get paid for the entry-level, sometimes one-credit internships with smaller companies that they more likely qualify for. If I had not been one of the fortunate few freshmen who can claim sophomore status and the internship credit, I would never have landed my current internship and my learned skills would be far less than they are now.

The Career Development Center website also explains how junior-standing students can pursue four or eight-credit internships. Students must complete the prerequisites to register the internship as a course, have a 2.7 grade point average, and pay for all four credits when pursuing these opportunities—though oftentimes the internship takes the place of the fourth class during the year. If a student interns in the summer, it is, again, an added expense—$763 per credit for summer classes, according to the Career Development Center.   

I believe the college should consider one-credit internship experiences as co-curricular, non-tuition credits. Co-curriculars like the Berkeley Beacon, or on-campus magazines, are largely student-led and only require resources such as space and equipment from the college. Emerson encourages all students, including freshmen, to participate in these activities to supplement their education.

Likewise, when students complete one-credit internships, the responsibility for the student’s experience and education falls entirely on the employer, not the college. Emerson is only tasked with approving the internship and ensuring the credit ends up on students’ transcripts after individuals register for the course. So why do we have to pay Emerson to work for an outside company?

Plus, not all students can afford the additional expenses for these internships—especially if the company does not compensate their interns. For example, I had to pay for my own transportation to and from Malden, and MBTA monthly passes are $84.50 or around $300 for a discounted college semester pass. As a result, students are sometimes forced to choose between dropping money on top of their tuition and an opportunity that would boost both their skill set and their resume.   

These seemingly minuscule opportunities take up the top slots on our resumes, teach us vital skills, and make us viable candidates to work for the larger, well-known employers. The fields related to our majors already have an incredibly competitive hiring rate and employers typically look for these internships when considering us for jobs.

Emerson should take inspiration from institutions that do not let financial burdens stop students from interning. A 2017 New York Times article noted that some colleges, like the University of Chicago, and Amherst College, alleviate the cost of labor, transportation, and rent, by giving stipends to any student pursuing an unpaid internship. Emerson’s administration should find space in the budget to do the same for students—or at least those who have no choice but to leave these internship opportunities behind because of monetary expenses.

Our careers often begin with our internships. It is unacceptable that our paths to success are blocked in these ways, especially after each student already shells out thousands for tuition. I appreciate and applaud the work Emerson does to place students in internships, but the college’s contribution to our internship experiences simply cannot end there.

 

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