Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?
Internships may be valuable, even if you don't get paid. My unpaid internship in high school showed me possibilities that I hadn't even thought of.
Additional reporting by Emma Finnerty
I’ve had a passion for writing for as long as I can remember. It was the one part of me, the one talent, in which I was completely confident — something that no one could take away from me.
However, when I tell people I want to be a writer, they often ask me what type of writing I want to pursue. I am still unable to respond. Some might see my uncertainty about the future as a lack of focus, but it’s not.
In fact, this is what I like most about my ambition to be a writer. I like the ambiguity, not knowing where this passion will take me. However, three years ago, I wouldn’t have been singing the same tune.
I remember the feeling as a high school sophomore navigating through annual college fairs. I debated whether or not to tell college representatives that I wanted to study English.
It wasn’t as if I was passionate about studying anything else, but I did worry about the practicality. What high-paying job could I get with a degree in English? What if I’m unable to churn out bestsellers like Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer and make millions?
Sometimes it’s difficult to balance my liberal arts passion with the goal of making more than just a living four to five years from now. I know I will eventually need to start saving for retirement and thinking about buying a home.
And then I met someone at one of the college fairs. She wasn’t a college rep, but she started talking to my friend and me about options. When my friend said she was interested in a pre-med track, the stranger’s face lit up with approval, though she warned my friend that medicine was tough.
I gathered my courage and said I wanted to become an English major. She dismissed me with, “Oh, you’ll be fine. That will be easy work.” She quickly turned back to my friend to talk more about a medical career.
I felt insulted, but I tried not to take her comments to heart. Still, the doubts began: Was I on the wrong track?
Choosing a High-School Internship
Luckily for me, my high school — The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS) — has an annual tradition of releasing seniors a few weeks early so they can complete an internship in or outside of school. The goal is to let TYWLS girls experience a job or a professional environment before heading off to college.
I decided to do my own internship at my school. (Though if you’re looking for an internship or job outside of your school, sites like Jobscan can help to make the search and application process easier.)
I worked for my 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Conn. In the last few weeks of school, Ms. Conn’s English class took a break from the regular academic curriculum. Instead, they focused on something more personal: drafting and completing the college essay.
My Unpaid Internship Paid Off
My internship at school was, unfortunately, unpaid. It would have been great if it had been paid, but I knew I had another summer internship lined up just as a way to make some money and save. Being an intern for Ms. Conn’s class changed all that.
As someone who used to be shy and reclusive, I found it a bit hard at first to stand in front of the room and get the class to focus on command. But with each passing day at the internship, my public speaking skills improved tremendously. My voice wielded enough power not only to silence a classroom of highly energetic girls, but also to pique their interest in what the class entailed that day.
“Seanna, what do you want to do when you’re older?” one of my students asked during one class session. I was ready to start my “professional ambiguity” speech for the umpteenth time. But then I the student interrupted me.
“You should be a teacher one day. You would be amazing,” she said.
I would gladly take up another unpaid internship if it meant discovering more about myself as a writer, not to mention my potential to be an English teacher.
Despite wanting to be an English major, I never considered becoming an English teacher. I pictured myself writing magazine articles or important contracts for a business. But my student’s comment gave me fresh hope.
Are Unpaid Internships Worth It? The Bottom Line
I do look forward to earning some cash during another internship at Publicis Healthcare Communications Group before I head to college. But I honestly don’t think I can say either internship will be better than the other.
I think all internships are vital — paid or not. It’s an opportunity to gain experience that can help you map out your professional future. I would gladly take up another unpaid internship if it meant discovering more about myself as a writer, and my potential to be an English teacher.
That said, in my financial position, it helps to get paid. A paid internship that inspires me professionally would be a win-win. I would gain insight into my future, and I could save up and financially prepare for it, too.
It’s reassuring to know that my years in college will help me figure out what I want to do with my writing. But it’s even more reassuring to know that future internships will be crucial toward figuring it out, as well.
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