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Print Editions Wednesday September 27th, 2023

Sundlee ’16: End unpaid internships

As we conclude the summer, many of us will be departing that bittersweet, collegiate summer experience of the unpaid internship. There’s nothing more exciting than being accepted to a program at a prestigious organization and nothing more dismaying than subsisting on scraps for three months. Still we tell ourselves it will be worth it in the end. This is just part of climbing that career ladder, right? It’s true that the unpaid internship offers experience, connections and a line on the resume, but the larger ethical implications of a system that demands unpaid labor ultimately negate these benefits.

Many arguments have been made against unpaid internships. The system has been called illegal, unfair and exploitative. But above all, it’s destructive to our society. Unpaid internships contribute to the widening class divide. While there are some who can secure funding through their universities, the majority of students who take these prestigious unpaid internships are those who can afford to work for free and travel to the locations of the internships. For students who don’t happen to be blessed with generous or wealthy parents, this path is simply not an option. They miss a rung in that career ladder that has become expected by the professional world.

There are some options available to those of us lucky enough to attend comparatively wealthy institutions like Brown, but throughout the rest of the higher education world, this is not necessarily the case. Students who can’t afford to take the financial hit of an unpaid summer have to work all the harder to keep pace with their more affluent peers or else suffer a disadvantage when emerging into the job market after graduation.

This trend is especially evident in Washington, where I spent my summer. On Capitol Hill, seasons of congressional work experience are required to obtain even the lowest-paying positions. The students who can achieve these minimum requirements generally come from wealthy families, and thus Capitol Hill is deprived of sorely needed perspectives from those who don’t hail from affluent backgrounds. This only serves to increase the disconnect between American lawmakers and the class that makes up the majority of the population.

Unpaid internships are especially insidious in that many organizations use them as free labor. While there are laws in place to prevent this, they don’t stop the perpetuation of the idea that in many fields, young people are expected to “pay their dues” and take on grunt work for free before advancing. These tasks, such as fact-checking and proofreading, directly benefit the organization and therefore should be paid. Such actions are in direct contrast with the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for legal internships. Not only are lower-income students being inadvertently discriminated against, but the ones who do manage to do unpaid internships are often exploited.

From a narrower perspective, Brown prides itself on being an institution dedicated to social justice, and it offers many fine resources for securing summer funding through the LINK (Linking Internships and Knowledge) award, Summer Earnings Waiver and other grants. But in the end, this current policy still isn’t enough. If a student receives a full LINK award of $3,000 and is living in an expensive area like Washington or New York, these funds don’t even come close to covering rent, food, airfare and other living necessities. Many cannot find the time to subsidize these extra costs with another job, because many internships demand full work weeks.

In January, President Christina Paxson announced the University’s plan to expand funding to support one unpaid internship or research opportunity for each student on financial aid. This is an encouraging move in the right direction. It is important for the administration to recognize that these grants need to increase not just in number, but also in worth. Unpaid internships in major cities are still unreachable for those without privileged backgrounds who live beyond driving distance of the internship’s location. Additionally, Brown should loosen its restrictions on allowing internships to count for credit. That would alleviate some of the heavy costs that come with the unpaid internship.

In an ideal world, unpaid internships would be abolished completely. Sadly, the practice has become firmly ingrained in fields where cash is tightest, and most organizations will be disinclined to pay for work they’ve been getting for free for decades unless there is legal coercion. The expectation of college students to work for free is a perversion of the professional system and an obstruction to making our society more egalitarian. Brown, as a self-proclaimed bastion of social justice, should combat this poisonous trend. Summer internships for less affluent students should be less about survival and more about exploring.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 is not at all bitter about working for free this summer. … She can be reached at



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