February 7, 2014

Take the next step

Career Advancement has the opportunity to make unpaid internships more meaningful.

The summer internship application cycle is in full swing for many UChicago students. Through Summer Action Grants, International Experience Grants, and the 1,000 Metcalf internships offered this summer, Career Advancement (CA) provides many paid opportunities for students. In addition, CA also offers an unpaid option for students: the Internship for Credit Practicum. However, as it currently stands, the Practicum is not much different from an unpaid internship, and actually costs students $150. While providing this opportunity allows students to take internships that require academic credit, CA can still do more to make the credit offered meaningful and find additional sources of funding for students.

Twenty-eight students participated in the Practicum last year. Students must pay a $150 oversight fee and are required to turn in a journal, a final report, and an updated résumé to receive 0.25 credits that appear on the transcript but do not count toward graduation. If an internship does not pay at least minimum wage, the law mandates employers to fulfill six requirements outlined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). These six requirements structure an internship with the intent that students benefit from an educational experience, not that the employers necessarily benefit from students’ work. The credit awarded from these experiences is not meant to take the place of wages. Many UChicago students already take unpaid internships, but currently the Credit Practicum option is not much different—except that it costs $150 more.

There are a couple of ways that CA can make a program like this more beneficial for students, starting with eliminating the $150 fee and revising the course syllabus. Now, the awarding of credit and the work attached to it is only nominal. Offering a full credit that counts toward graduation for this course would be a good first step. Of course, this increase in credit would also warrant more work on the part of students. CA can play a role in ensuring that that this work is meaningful by asking employers to require students to produce a tangible product which will assist them in finding paid positions in the future, such as a writing sample, research abstract, or presentation. Currently, though the responsibility to uphold FLSA requirements is on the employer, CA already works with them to ensure that students’ experiences provide appropriate professional training and preparation. Changing the work expected of students in this program will probably require CA to more carefully check its employers, which will only improve the experience that students receive.

A 2012 study by college recruiting consulting firm Intern Bridge found that 64.1 percent of students working in an unpaid internship also needed to work second jobs. However, the Internship for Credit Practicum increases the opportunities available to students and provides access to employers who otherwise would not offer internships. Given that unpaid internships aren’t likely to go away soon, CA should explore other options of funding for students. Even if the University is not able to devote any more money to fund students, CA can connect students to other funding options outside of the University.

The expansion of the Metcalf program in recent years has been an admirable effort on the part of CA to secure funding for student interns. We now ask them to take the next step.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.