Is it really as simple as “It’s not what you know, but who you know?” Is the playing field really leveled? Internships are a great way to gain experience and improve one’s professional development, especially during summer breaks, but it is more complex than applying for a wonderful opportunity and seizing it without hesitation. Not all students are able to take advantage of internship opportunities due to financial reasons and limited access.
On July 5, 2016, Darren Walker published an article in The New York Times entitled “Internships Are Not a Privilege.” A year since its publication, I identify closely with many of the points that Walker articulated. As a first-generation, low-income, underrepresented student, seeking an internship was not a part of my priorities during college. Since the age of 14, I’ve spent my summers earning a paycheck. Most internships are unpaid, and I cannot work for free. Additionally, I did not have the knowledge about the opportunities. Yet, over the course of my time with NASFAA and in Washington, D.C., I have observed this issue around equitable access to internships for students like myself.
Walker raises an important point in the article, saying “TALENT is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” There are plenty of talented students across the campuses of this nation, but what about the distribution of opportunity? There is a lot of conversation taking place about areas where opportunity is increasing, but a strict critique needs to be done of the internship possibilities in America. More times than not, I enter a room as “the only one.” I am often the only woman or the only Black student, and I am praised as for my work and accomplishments. I am not alone in this, I am sure there are many students on your campuses who experience being “the only one” at times. The narrative has to be changed. Students like me may not always have an expansive network to use when attempting to find avenues of opportunity, so despite being highly qualified, we often end up left out.
The issue does not lie just with the individual student seeking opportunities. There is a lack of effort being made for students who share similar backgrounds with me. Several of the other interns I have engaged with during my time in D.C. got their internships through family connections and can afford to work in unpaid positions. That may be a great experience, but we should investigate more and ask “What about those who do not have opportunities through parental connections and may not have the means to spend time working for free?” Walker raises the same point by questioning parental connections. He assesses how they help their own student while at the same time perpetuating the disadvantages for students from underrepresented communities.
Furthermore, he analyzes the privilege that is associated with how one obtains their network. For these reasons it is fair to question the institution of internships in America. I recently had the chance to sit and speak with one of our policy analysts at NASFAA. She explained to me how policy is rooted in principles and outcomes. The same concept can be applied to the philosophy of internships. As Walker describes, “Internships are short-term opportunities that help students learn, grow, and connect with mentors and begin climbing the earnings curve, many promising young people with limited means are denied the chance to rise as high as their talents will take them.” The playing field is not as leveled as it should be. Efforts need to be increased to encourage underrepresented students to take risks. Additionally, an emphasis needs to be placed on compensating students who demonstrate financial need via paid internships. This would open the door, level the playing field, and dismantle the existing privilege.
Due to extensive effort to build my network, I was able to apply for the NASFAA DME policy intern position. Additionally, due to your contributions, I have been able to be a paid intern as well. Thus far, this opportunity has allowed me to build more than skills — I am more confident in settings I never expected to be in. Please, encourage your students to apply for internships and take risks and help them reach their full potential like all of my supporters have done for me!
Publication Date: 7/28/2017