David Lizza (COL ’15) and Basil Bastaki (SFS ’15) had yet to complete their first year at Georgetown when they began searching for summer internships in D.C.
This summer, Lizza, an 19 year old hailing from Summit, N.J., stayed on campus and worked on Capitol Hill for Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.). Bastaki, an 18 year old Kuwaiti native pursuing a degree in international politics, interns at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where he studies microfilms. While Lizza and Bastaki each worked over 30 hours per week at their respective jobs, neither earned any money.
Facing a struggling economy and an increasingly competitive job market, more and more college students are willingly working for free. According to a 2011 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than half of college graduates held at least one internship, about 48 percent of which were unpaid. In 1992, only 17 percent of students had completed any kind of internship before graduating, according to a study conducted at Northwestern University.
“I feel like everyone at Georgetown, or maybe at every university, has a certain pressure to get as many accomplishments under your belt [as possible],” Collin Segura (COL ’15), who spent his summer interning alongside Bastaki at the Kluge Center, said. “Probably part of [why I took the internship] was the desire to be competitive.”
Bastaki was also inspired to find an internship, even one with no financial compensation, by the need he feels to separate himself from the pack.
“I don’t know how I’ll compete,” he said. “That’s the main motivation, that fear of competition.”
But the costs of these unpaid internships can be high. Students must often pay for housing, transportation and even new work clothes without the support of a weekly paycheck or stipend.
In some cases, unpaid internships become prohibitively expensive. Segura said he could not have interned at the Kluge Center had he not been able to live in free housing offered by the Georgetown University Student Association’s Summer Fellows Program.
The GUSA fellowship allows undergraduate students who qualify for need-based financial aid to live in Georgetown dorms, which would otherwise cost nearly $3,000, for free over the summer. But GUSA’sprogram is highly selective; this year only 11 students were chosen to receive grants out of about 40 applicants.
“Expanding the program is always something we would love to do,” Summer Fellows Program Director Justin Pinn (COL ’13) said. “But it should be noted that we do need money. … With the cost of housing, that’s a lot of money for 11 fellows.”
Despite the costs, Segura said he did earn something from his internship.
“The internship provides valuable experience, which in itself is a form of compensation,” he said.
Segura is not the only Georgetown student who looks at it that way. Glenda Dieuveille (COL ’14) gave up a paying job to pursue an unpaid opportunity on the Hill.
Dieuveille spent her sophomore year working for Phonathon, a branch of the university’s annual fund, calling alumni and parents to ask for donations. The job was not scintillating, but it paid $10 an hour, enough to cover meals at restaurants and other extraneous expenses.
“I didn’t enjoy it very much. The staff was great, but it wasn’t fulfilling work for me, even though I was getting paid for it,” Dieuveille said.
But at the end of August, she was offered an internship at Rep. Frederica Wilson’s (D-Fla.) D.C. office, after working for the congresswoman in Miami during the summer. Dieuveille decided to give up her paying job for an internship that offered something more attractive than an hourly wage.
“I wanted to find something that had to do with something that I want to do after school, and [my internship] was related.”
During her time working without pay at Wilson’s local offices in her hometown of Miami, Fla., this summer, Dieuveille found that working with the congresswoman fit well with her academic and career interests, spurring her decision to continue this unpaid work during the school year.
“I’m Haitian-American, so I can speak Creole. I got to practice working with [constituents], particularly on issues like immigration, visa problems. I was exposed to a whole array of problems that I didn’t know [about] before,” Dieuveille said.
Able to stay at home in Miami over the summer, Dieuveillehad no living expenses, but she recognizes the trouble that others have in trying to manage unpaid internships.
“That’s the rough thing about internships, [like] government, Hill internships where you don’t really get compensated for it. It was OK being home with my parents, so I didn’t really have to pay bills,” Dieuveille said. “I could afford to work unpaid, but some people can’t.”
The legality of unpaid internships, which have been labeled by some as exploitative, is a murky subject. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act — the federal law responsible for regulating labor conditions and wages — outlines six criteria that must be met in order for a company to legally employ a person without paying him. These range from requiring that those employees receive on-the-job training to a stipulation that the company “derive no immediate advantage” from the work of the unpaid employee.
“The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern,” the website of the U.S. Department of Labor FLSA Wage and Hour Division states.
Three lawsuits filed in the last year challenge that statement. The law firm Outten & Golden LLP has filed class action complaints on behalf of unpaid interns at the Hearst Corporation, Fox Searchlight Pictures and talk show “Charlie Rose”, alleging that the companies violated federal and state labor laws by failing to pay wages to interns who did the work of full employees.
“Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work,” the firm’s complaint against Fox Searchlight from Sept. 2011 reads. “In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees … most crucially, the right to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”
Segura also believes that the line between intern and full employee — as far as the work required of each is concerned — has been blurred.
“More and more, it seems like students are being asked to do things that people are paid for — for free,” he said.
All three of the Outten & Golden cases are ongoing, but in the meantime, companies are seeking new ways to demonstrate that interns are the ones benefitting from the internship experience. According to Jessica Ciani-Dausch, a dean in the College, it is becoming increasingly common for companies to mandate that students receive academic credit from their respective universities for their work. For example, Gawker Media, The Washington Post and Time Warner Cable all mandate such programs for their employees.
“The press for credit is because they’re not paying the intern, and the labor agencies press the employers,” she said. “There are federal labor laws against this. The student has to be earning some kind of benefit, and that’s where the credit issue comes in.”
Even so, she is suspicious about companies’ new enthusiasm for providing academic credit in exchange for unpaid work.
“My first instinct was that this is kind of shady,” Ciani-Dausch, who has a law degree, said. “It’s like the Wild West out there. … The new [labor law] isn’t being put into effect at all uniformly.”
Along with the Georgetown College Academic Council, which includes all of the deans of the College,Ciani-Dausch created a one-credit internship course under interdisciplinary studies called “College Internship Experience,” which students can take in conjunction with their work. Students enrolled in the course are matched with a professor who serves as their adviser. Students may have to submit papers or other projects demonstrating what they have gained from their employment in order to complete the course and receive credit for an internship. The McDonough School of Business has a similar one-credit management course designed for internships.
The university hopes that these programs can ensure that students who are deriving academic benefit from their internships are rewarded for it, according to Ciani-Dausch.
“If there’s academic content that gets paired with something that you might have learned … that’s what we can give credit for,” she said.
Despite the academic, financial and even legal ramifications, internships have become well established at Georgetown, as much an institution as drinking at The Tombs or sitting in John Carroll’s lap. In 2010, 83 percent of respondents to the Career Center’s senior survey said they had interned during their time on the Hilltop. Last year, that number jumped to 86 percent.
According to Lizza, this is a permanent shift.
“Internships are part of the college experience now,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) is Haitian-American. She is not.