Can Be Heaven or Hell -- Either Way, No Pay

Washington DCEach summer, 20,000 college students descend on the nation's capital in search of the elusive "perfect internship."

College students believe that an internship at a prestigious Washington D.C. institution is a prerequisite for graduate school and later employment. Studies by online career research institute Vault Inc. found that almost 90 percent of 2003 college graduates had completed an internship.

There has been a rising tide of skepticism about the value of internships. We've all heard the horror stories of interns who are practically indentured slaves. But there are also stories of students who run errands, make photocopies and play computer games, only to later pad their resumes. Bringing the boss coffee transforms into "performed vital administrative functions directly for the company's chief executive."

Insofar as internships offer any substantive rewards, they usually involve networking links rather than solid experience.

Highly motivated and idealistic -- albeit relatively untested -- students can have a positive effect, provided there is sufficient commitment from the employer and the intern. Those offering internships should engage students in purposeful work, rather than regard them as live voice-mail functionaries. Interns should take the initiative in drafting projects that represent a serious contribution, rather than passively wait for instructions that may never come.

There are obvious disadvantages to internships, since most are unpaid or provide only a tiny stipend. Thus, interns usually come from middle-class families capable of supporting them for the summer. Others must juggle multiple jobs.

Moreover, access to desirable internships often mirrors existing social inequalities: Some Ivy Leaguers get virtually any position they seek, while candidates from tertiary institutions often find slim pickings. Organizations should respond to this disparity by offering positions to those who would gain the most from exposure to the policy-making process.

We are fortunate to work for an organization where our duties are tough, relentless and transformative. Both sides in the internship process should remember its intended purpose: firsthand experience in a "real world" environment. Only then will a summer in Washington suggest something other than envelope-stuffing, bar-hopping and a date with Bill Clinton.

Jessica Leight, Yale '06, and Sara Clement, Wake Forest '04, are research associates with the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (www.coha.org) This editorial was reprinted with permission from COHA.
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