The Collegian
Saturday, March 25, 2023

Summertime madness: We must reform unpaid internships

Why am I already thinking about summer? Gloves are still a nearly everyday accessory for me, but what I'll be doing during the muggy months ahead is already weighing on my mind. Summertime used to mean no school, sleeping in and cool camps, but for a University of Richmond student, it's resume-building time.

For the college student who wants to do things right, there are really only a handful of options, depending on one's field of study. For those intending to apply to graduate or medical school, UR has an excellent undergraduate research program. For those thinking internationally, there's summer study abroad. For those who are blessed by some divine power, there are the rare paid internships. And for the rest of us, there is the unpaid internship.

Last week's issue of The Collegian featured an article titled "Lawsuit changes future of student internships." For those who didn't get a chance to read it, the gist is this: Two unpaid interns who worked on the 2010 film "Black Swan" (I must say, I loved that movie) sued Fox Searchlight Pictures arguing essentially that their labor had been exploited with little educational gain for them, thus violating minimum wage and labor laws. A federal judge agreed, ruling in June of last year that unpaid internships should be allowed "only in very limited circumstances."

While this was just one judge's opinion, and the issue is still in the beginning stages of debate, the ethics and legality of unpaid internships are something that American society will need to confront in the near future. It is an open secret that interns are considered free, unskilled labor by many employers, but there are companies that try to give their interns, even the unpaid ones, a rounded, educational experience. Last summer, I was fortunate to work as a reporter for a local, biweekly newspaper called the Henrico Citizen. Besides the owner, a UR alumnus (and former sports editor of The Collegian), the paper only employed one other full-time writer. Thus, I was pressed into service writing several articles per issue about topics such as the local school board and ballet summer camps. I came out of the internship with a stack of good clips, and a nice addition to my resume. During my internship, I was able to take advantage of UR's recently revamped Summer Fellowships Program. With my award, I could focus on reporting without worrying about how I would fill up my gas tank to get to the office.

Getting rid of unpaid internships may sound good on paper, but what it will likely lead to is less internship opportunities overall. With companies having to devote more financial resources, they'll probably look to shrink their intern pools. Meanwhile, smaller companies may be too afraid to risk devastating litigation from using unpaid interns. We're blessed as Richmond students to have access to this program, and with the uncertainty surrounding this issue, university-run internship programs may be the key to solving the summertime madness swirling in America.

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