Do Unpaid Internships Exploit College Students?

To some, internships are a coveted rite of passage, while others consider internships the equivalent of free labor. While the ideal internship provides students the real-world experience necessary to achieve gainful employment, all internships—whether paid or unpaid—are the result of what the students put into them.

The field of communications is rife with students vying for a job that many people think they would pay to have. Reporters, publicists and radio broadcast journalists may seem to have dream jobs, but does that mean students should work for free under the guise of the internship?

One student fortunate enough to be offered an internship with Rolling Stone Magazine complained that his internship left him anxious about soiling an immaculate office. The most ironic aspect of an article published in Pulse Magazine in 2007, Sean Corbett writes: “As an intern at any organization, it’s an inglorious fact that part of your job is to sit around and wait for a chance to prove yourself. It’s the intern dilemma: Don’t get in their way, but make an impression.” Ironically, the comments section following the article was filled with statements from young students eager to accept a similar internship. Corbett even admitted his uncertainty about whether a job at Rolling Stone was what he truly wanted, which is central to accepting internships.

Natalie Camillo, a publicist for Adrenaline PR, completed a few internships while majoring in mass communication at York College of Pennsylvania, including one at Relapse Records and another involving marketing for a classic rock radio station. None of her internships were paid. When she started out she felt she did not do a good enough job, but by the time she did marketing for the classic rock station, she said her responsibilities included duties that “a paid salaried person would do,” including cold-calling customers and selling booth space for events, which brought profit to the company.

One of the government requirements under The Fair Labor Standards Act for an unpaid internship is that “[the] employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” Certainly, an internship that throws its students into a real-world environment should be a paid internship if it benefits the company, but the fact is that even when an unpaid internship is presented to a student that provides real-world work experience, the student should be thankful for the opportunity, which could lead to a paid position in the future.

The student alone has the responsibility to ensure he or she is not taken advantage of in an internship. Whether it’s an internship at Rolling Stone Magazine fetching coffee or cold-calling clients for a marketing campaign, there must be an appreciation for the opportunities the experience provides. Camillo said that had she not had the experience provided by her internship she would have felt more nervous when starting at her paid position.

Internships through the Department of Communication at KSU are overseen by Professor Tom Gray when a student meets the requirements to complete an internship for academic credit. Gray said that in his experience—more than eight years—very few student students have complained. Gray advises students to research the companies for which they consider interning because, ultimately, the choice is the student’s.

“Internship is what students want to make of it, and what the student wants to do,” Gray said.

Students should take advantage of any opportunity to hone their skills and make an impression in the networks they hope to get jobs in, especially
in a field like communications, where jobs are scarce and the market is competitive.

Camillo said that when she got her job with Adrenaline PR, a boutique PR firm that handles major festivals including the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, her boss knew the people with whom Camillo interned. The references and the networking she did for free paid off significantly because, even though education is valued, in some fields, who you know and who will vouch for you is just as important.

If a student gets the opportunity to bring coffee to the person sitting in his or her dream job position, that student should jump at the chance to learn as much as possible. In this economy, more students should recognize the value of hard work and experience and not get sidetracked by purely financial compensation. The value in an internship comes from the research the student does before applying and the work the student puts in when offered an opportunity.


Ellen is a senior communication major.