opinion   |   column

Being an unpaid intern is a privilege

Many civic-minded students who have serious aspirations to work in the federal government are currently buried in applications, cover letters and interviews. 

Throughout this process, work hours, housing and location are all topics of discussion. But a lot of times, salary is left out of the conversation. This is because oftentimes, there is no discussion to have — because oftentimes salary is non-existent. 

Yes — most times if a student is looking to work in Washington, D.C., for a summer, the benefit of a reputable, useful network takes the place of a physical paycheck. For a lot of us, this invaluable list of contacts and opportunities is worth roughing it for a summer. There is a belief current financial struggles will lead to future success, right?

Stop for a moment and think about how many students, in an age of skyrocketing student debt, increasing student housing prices and stagnating minimum wage, legitimately cannot afford to forgo income for a summer. 

For many students, the money they make in a summer is used to fund food, housing bills and more during the school year. So the conversation then becomes — how much do Washington D.C. unpaid internships perpetuate a cycle of politics for the privileged? 

The answer is a lot. The Higher Education Chronicle notes internships were considered one of the most important factors in hiring a recent college graduate. And again, in Washington, D.C., the people one meets and the network one creates in a summer are what lead to lucrative job offers in the future. 

When only those who have parents or scholarships willing to support them for a summer of expensive housing, food and living expenses are able to intern in Washington, D.C., there is a shortage of life experience and perspective in Washington. And that is the perspective and hardworking nature of the middle and lower classes.

This is particularly perplexing for congressional offices, where many of the unpaid interns are coming from the representative’s constituency. 

And yes — many Washington, D.C. interns get part-time jobs to help them get through the summer. But oftentimes these jobs are just to provide meager living expenses for the summer. For students who need to make and save up money for the impending school year, even this option is just not plausible for them. 

Oftentimes, lawmakers and government workers trust those working for them to bring fresh, firsthand experience that will inform the lawmaker’s decision making. 

Politics will continue to shut out the interests of the middle and lower classes so long as bright, young minds from these classes are not able to access the experience they need at the intern level to rise up in Washington, D.C. after graduation. 

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