For many Georgetown students, an internship at the White House represents the creme de la creme of opportunities in Washington, D.C. One Georgetown student, however, sees a way to make the experience even more enriching: payment.
Following the State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Michael Holper (COL ’14) created a petition pushing for the payment of White House interns on the We the People platform. If the petition, which currently stands at 82 signatures, is able to pool 100,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House is required to issue a formal response.
“In [the State of the Union], President Obama encouraged employers to pay employees a living wage … I appreciate that the president is doing this because it’s a popular issue … but I think it is illegitimate if you’re not actually paying your own employees,” Holper said.
For Holper, who has never served as a White House intern, unpaid internships represent a major barrier to providing equal access to all internships.
“Because it’s such a large time commitment, if you’re not paid, you really have to be fairly wealthy to be able to do this to begin with … It makes it pretty much the purview of only the very wealthiest Americans, so that irks me, too,” Holper said. “Ostensibly, the purpose of these internships is to create good future leaders for America, so if you’re only picking the top one or two percent of income brackets, that’s absurd.”
As interns in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy over the summer and fall 2013 respectively, Timothy Raftis (COL ’14) and Naman Trivedi (SFS ’16) agreed that although a salary would have been an added benefit to their positions, they felt that they gained a different sort of compensation from their time at the White House.
“I feel like the majority would say they gained a whole lot more out of their internship that had nothing to do with money,” Trivedi said. “You keep in contact with people that you worked with, and they’re really well connected in the industries that they worked in prior.”
Trivedi, who often stayed in the office until 8 or 9 p.m. tinkering with projects for fun, posited that the unpaid nature of the position might actually lower barriers for the coveted positions by allowing more students the opportunity to participate.
“I feel like because they don’t pay interns, they’re able to take in a whole lot more than they could otherwise,” Trivedi said. “When you are paid, that limits your pool of applicants a lot more, so I’m not sure that as a sophomore undergraduate, I would have been able to intern at the White House if it had been paid, because they’re more likely to take a bunch of graduate students.”
Raftis acknowledged that having to pay for room and board during the summer for his internship was a burden.
“It was a sacrifice and a struggle to participate in the White House intern program over the summer, as the cost of living in D.C. is high … however, I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible for the majority.”
Although he acknowledged Holper’s argument, Raftis said that compensation for interning at the White House holds more than monetary value.
“I can understand his point of view, especially wanting to hold President Obama to his own standard,” Raftis said. “I think it would have been nice to get paid, however I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. I definitely worked extremely hard. I worked long hours, especially over the summer when I was working full time, but because I loved what I was doing, it wasn’t a chore to me.”
Raftis added that the unpaid nature of the internship might create a group of interns self-selected for their interest in the position rather than the potential to be compensated.
“Everyone that’s there is completely for public service, and made a sacrifice to work there and not get paid, which has some really great consequences,” Raftis said.
Holper will continue to promote his petition by engaging his friends on Facebook and writing a Buzzfeed community post in the hopes of raising the necessary 100,000 votes by the Feb. 28 deadline.