Sinking the Internship
Eve Goldenberg, CC’17, a native New Yorker, came to Columbia with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. In her first semester, she enrolled in a formal acting class and, once a week, took the subway downtown to continue her study of improv theater. By the spring of her freshman year, however, Goldenberg felt far away from her dream. She’d started interning at a media and entertainment startup in Midtown in the hopes of “boosting [her] experience” for a potential job in the industry after college. She was familiar with the pros and cons of the unpaid internship: she had interned twice during the last two summers of her high school years. Now, though, Goldenberg was coming to the conclusion that “internships take a lot out of you.” Originally undertaken by graduates seeking to position themselves for a full-time job, internships are now an increasingly popular commitment among students during their time in school. While Columbia’s Center for Career Education would not divulge data, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 68 percent of America’s college seniors are interning before they graduate (half of them for no pay). These numbers reflect a steady increase; in 2012, only 55 percent were interning. As demonstrated by reform initiatives like Intern Justice and Mayor Bill De Blasio’s July bill granting rights to unpaid interns, unpaid internships are clearly an entrenched socioeconomic injustice. While many students intern during the summer, Goldenberg’s internship was one that lasted for an entire academic semester. Why are so many college students, at Columbia and elsewhere, choosing to intern not merely in the summer, but while they are in school? How are semester-long pre-professional commitments affecting students’ lives as undergraduates?
In accordance with the College’s mission statement which, unlike those of peer schools, emphasizes career mobility, Columbia administrators advocate semester-round internships. Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis emphasized their educational value. “There’s no doubt you learn from internships,” she said. “At the college, we want to provide students with a theoretical framework for this learning, so that they understand the work they do at internships.” Dean of Advising Monique Rinere similarly advocated semester-round internships: “[C]ollege itself has become a much more integrated experience. I don’t think it’s rarified... it’s not like an Ivy Tower, anymore. It’s more of a ‘this is life’ kind of experience,” she said.
Deans Yatrakis and Rinere are right to point out the educational value of internships. With or without pay, many offer specialized knowledge that simply isn’t available, in Dean Rinere’s words, in the classroom. However, by advocating interning while in school as “the best possible mix of all”, they ignore the tremendous disruption that it can inflict on students’ on-campus education. As long as university administrators advocate these pre-professional opportunities, the pressure to participate in them during the academic year as well as the summer will only mount. Among the seven Columbia College seniors interviewed for this article, each one had completed at least five internships by their fourth year on campus.
The Columbia administration is overwhelmingly uncritical of internships in comparison to its peer institutions. Harvard Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC) assistant director Ariel Phillips said that “Harvard generally discourages students from doing internships during the school year.” The BSC, an affiliate of the school’s undergraduate advising, career services, and mental health services offices, is not only a substantial resource for students struggling with the pressures of careerism, it also guides students to question their very notions of “success” and “failure.” One of their worksheets, titled “Something’s Gotta Give: Pruning and Prioritizing for the Overcommitted”, asks the student to list the commitments that give bring them true fulfillment: “A connection with a deeper commitment often manifests as an enlivened, peaceful, or grounded state of being.” For students at Stanford who feel the pressure of aligning their school life with a future career, the university has a similar resource for dealing with stress: the Stanford Resilience Project.
Initiatives like the BSC and the Resilience Project are examples of how universities can allay the pressure of pre-professionalism and instead advocate self-reflection and emotional intelligence to their students. Their success is somewhat negligible: BSC’s workshop attendance ranges from zero to twenty undergraduates every semester, and the Resilience Project’s effectiveness can only be gauged by its website use. But at least the resources are there. Columbia’s administration ought to make similar efforts to recognize the success epidemic underlying the internship arms race.
The constant pressure to pursue internships is detrimental to a student’s academic life because of the enormous gap between the education offered by an internship and the education that occurs on campus. In order to understand this gap, it is important to know the legal framework of this issue. The US Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet on Internship Programs under The Fair Labor Standards Act distinguishes between the two types of learning an internship can provide: educational or training. This categorization essentially confirms that, unlike a school or even a traditional apprenticeship, an internship does not guarantee an education. Moreover, students who end up in a “training” type of internship gain skills that they could learn in any environment, unlike the specialized knowledge unique to every degree program. It would seem that while students are in school, there is no reason to simultaneously do a “training” type of internship.
Of course, students on explicitly pre-professional tracks are an exception to the general idea that the skills learned at an internship do not complement what is learned in the classroom. For pre-law and pre-med students, internships are unambiguously helpful as an extension of one’s educational experience, as the Department of Labor puts it. “[T]aking organic chemistry, biology with Professor Mowshowitz for example—that stuff is great, and you’re learning the basics of the science that you need to know to become a physician,” said Brianna Olamiju, CC’15, president of the Charles Drew Pre-Medical Society. “But in my view, there’s nothing that compares to the clinical exposure a summer internship can provide.”
For liberal arts majors, however, the problem with semester-round internships is not merely that they complicate the work-life balance -- they restrict students’ access to a real liberal arts education. Each of the dozen of students interviewed from Columbia College recounted the toll interning took on their academic life. Sociology major Alana Waldmann ’14 said she was “cracking” the spring semester of her sophomore year when she was taking six academic classes, in addition to an internship at Doctors Without Borders with a minimum requirement of 20 hours a week. Alana would often be too exhausted to make the class that was on the same day as her internship. It’s notable that Alana experienced anxiety about internships even during a study abroad program, during the fall semester of her junior year: “I got really nervous while I was abroad because… I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get an internship, not being able to interview in person.”
English major Simon Garrett CC'15 said that because of his sixteen-hour-a-week internship at a media start-up downtown, he was unable to complete the readings for his five literature seminars like he usually did. “This is the first semester that...like, I skipped Barchester Towers and I felt awful about it,” he fretted. Simon knew this potentially endangered his postgraduate plans; as his performance in seminar sometimes dipped, he was anxious about receiving adequate recommendations for possible research fellowships after school. Human rights major Grace Bickers ’14 stopped going to some classes altogether when she was interning for a UN organization in the spring of her junior year. “I had a seminar that I stopped going to,” she told me with a disbelieving smile. “I felt terrible. Terrible… I like being a student…[but] I didn’t learn anything. Why was I even here?”
Columbia grad and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz addresses precisely this question in his latest book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. He argues that the primary purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to get you a job (“You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life”), nor even to help you become a true intellectual (though that’s certainly part of it). The primary end of an undergraduate education is to help you start finding yourself: “if only since that is the one with whom you have to spend the rest of your life”. Cliche as it sounds, Deresiewicz’s argument resonates because it is precisely this process of self-development that semester-round internships interferes with. How can students even begin to contemplate their inner passions when they’re struggling to balance five classes, a sixteen-to-twenty hour internship downtown, and (a semblance of) a social life?
Slamming a popular argument that going to college purely to study what one loves is “indulgent” or somehow immoral, Deresiewicz writes, “The dull predictability of prescribed elite career paths is, if nothing else, repugnant as a moral spectacle.” Most importantly, Deresiewicz’s book offers the proof of experience. He tells countless stories of graduates who treated college singly as a gateway for a career only in the end, in the words of Harvard’s dean of admissions, William R. Fitzsimmons, to “give the impression that they are dazed survivors of a bewildering life-long boot camp...often [saying] that they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.”
What is more credible than the paths of those before us? It is true that in our post-recession economy, an elitist and exploitative form of labor is a basic job requisite (though according to NACE’s latest report, only 50 percent of internships result in direct employment). But do we really have to let the internship-- paid or unpaid-- infringe upon our education? Surely, attending college to figure out, in the words of Columbia professor Mark Lilla, “just what it is that’s worth wanting” isn’t such a bad idea.
A sixteen-hour professional commitment on top of five academic courses made it impossible for Goldenberg to pursue the passions she thought she would in college. Midway into our interview, Goldenberg declared that an internship isn’t worthy of displacing undergraduate life: ““From now on, I’m only going to do summer internships,” she said. “That way, I can have both worlds. ‘Cause I want to enjoy school… Like, I love film class.” Her eyes lit up as speaks about watching Citizen Kane in Introduction to Film Theory. “When do you ever have the opportunity to take, East Asian culture, and learn about that? Like, I’d never get that chance. Or, Asian American cinema. French philosophy…”
The twenty million undergraduate students at Columbia and the rest of America’s colleges all deserve to get an education uninterrupted by pre-professionalism. The “intern economy”, as TIME editor Jim Frederick prophesied it fifteen years ago, is the reality of our country’s workforce today. But students shouldn’t have to sacrifice their education to enter it -- and it is the responsibility of our top universities to teach them just that.