College Students Pay to Work at Unpaid Internships
March 01, 2010
By Kiah Haslett
College students are paying upward of $8,000 to work for free at summer internships.
Internship placement companies such as the University of Dreams and The Washington Center say they're seeing an increase in applicants for such internships. Fewer jobs available because of the recession means there is more competition for summer work, which students see as critical to eventually landing full-time work.
What's more, students view unpaid internships, especially in such fields as marketing, public relations and the music and theater industries, as an opportunity to jazz up their resumes and to live in such cities as New York and Chicago, where they don't have contacts. Others simply want to make sure that what they're interested in could evolve into a career.
Take Carmelle Hayes, a junior theater and voice major from Stephens College in Columbia, Mo. The 20-year-old works in her school's costume department and loves being on stage. But her goal is to work in casting.
So Hayes agreed to pay $7,999 to University of Dreams for a casting internship in New York for the summer (she's deciding among three choices) as well as handling her living arrangements.
Hayes is raising cash for the program. So far, she has gotten $1,500 from her school's financial aid office, and she has gone door-to-door soliciting money from businesses in Columbia and in her hometown of Topeka, Kan.
"My mom is a single parent, and it's hard for her to do much," she said.
Coming up with the thousands of dollars for an internship can be daunting. However, scholarships are available at University of Dreams and The Washington Center.
Mike Smith, Washington Center's chief executive, said more than 80 percent of the 750 summer participants receive aid in the form of scholarships, grants and loans. Despite the recession, the intern class of 2009, with 768 members, was the largest in the center's history.
A Washington Center scholarship paid for Mahmoud Siddig's $9,000 internship, which included housing.
Seddig, a senior economics major at the University of Iowa, worked at the Organization of American States last summer, where he helped his supervisor set up and lead meetings. There, he met the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian ambassadors and congressmen from Iowa, Indiana and California, and he discussed issues related to his homeland of Sudan and the United States.
In some cases, students are willing to pay for internships because they procrastinated about contacting companies.
"I guess I put off thinking about the summer until March," said Laura Lombardo (pictured above), a senior English major at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., who had not had any internships before her junior year. "It was probably me trying to deny that I was going to have to get an internship that summer."
Her dad, James Lombardo, a sales manager for Altria Corp. in Richmond, Va., picked up the $6,999 charged by University of Dreams.
"I look at it as a good investment in (her) future development,'' he said. "It was a chance for her to spread her wings a little bit."
Laura Lombardo worked the summer of 2008 at Creative Consortium, a public relations firm in Chicago. Lombardo monitored newspapers and magazines for stories about company clients and related industries. She created company profiles on professional and social media Web sites and updated client contact information.
The internship, Lombardo said, helped her land another unpaid internship in the fall of 2008 through her school at Press Here Publicity, a New York music industry public relations firm.
But some experts say students learn a great deal by finding their own internships, which includes researching companies and writing cover letters and resumes.
"I think there's an important learning process students go through in doing their own internship search," said Lonnie Dunlap, executive director of University Career Services at Northwestern University, which provides internship advice. "It's an important skill to know how to search, identify and locate employers."
Amanda Anderson, a senior international studies and journalism major at Loyola University Chicago, just completed her first internship search - on her own. She spent three hours assembling a resume and cover letter.
"It wasn't too hard,'' said Anderson, now an unpaid part-time reporting and photography intern for Chicago StreetWise, a weekly magazine.
Anderson said she would never consider paying a company to find an internship for her.
"I'm gaining experience by doing it myself," she said. "I like being in charge of myself."
But for some students, scoring an internship on their own can be trying. Just ask David West, a senior communications major at the University of Georgia.
Last summer he paid University of Dreams to arrange an internship, got five choices and decided on a marketing internship in New York at Decca Label, a subsidiary of Universal Music.
This year, however, he used his university's career center to research potential employers and sent out his own applications.
But he has heard nothing, and is hoping to work in New York as a University of Dreams summer program director.
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