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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Unpaid summer internships present challenges, create opportunities for Tufts students

Ever since Kenny Weitzman was a high school student in rural New Hampshire, he knew he wanted to work on Capitol Hill. The Tufts junior saved money for the past four years, working during the summers and the school years to be able to accept an unpaid internship at Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-NH) office.

Weitzman, who double-majors in international relations and economics, completed the Washington, D.C.-based internship this summer.

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “Working on the Hill, it’s one of those things where you kind of see history unfolding before you.” 

But Weitzman said he considers himself lucky that he was able to make the unpaid internship possible by saving money and by having parents who support many of his financial needs during the school year, such as tuition.

“My family is comfortable, but we’re not wealthy by any stretch,” he said. “It’s been good, but I feel personally like I’m on the edge of being able to do this [unpaid internship]. If I hadn’t been forward thinking, known I’d wanted to do this for a while and been able to put those savings away, there’s no way I would be here right now.”

According to Gregory Victory, the executive director of the Career Center, most Tufts students take on internships during their time as undergraduates. A survey conducted by the Career Center, he said, found that 88 percent of the Class of 2015 interned once while at Tufts, and 66 percent completed two or more internships.

“Often, an internship is an important experience that helps students get into the job or graduate school they want,” Victory said.

Though the Career Center does not have data about the percentage of Tufts undergraduate students that complete unpaid internships, he said approximately 46 percent of the positions listed on Jumbo Jobs during the 2015-2016 school year were unpaid.Nationally, 39.2 percent of bachelor’s degree graduates from the Class of 2015 participated in an unpaid internship during their college career, according to a study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The Career Center offers roughly 50 grants that fund unpaid internships each summer, Victory said, which are paid for by private donors. Some are offered to students looking to work in a particular field. Others primarily consider the socio-economic backgrounds of applicants.  

“It’s our goal to grow the number of grants we get,” Victory said. “If students don’t have access to [internship] opportunities because of financial reasons, then they’re falling behind in securing a position post-Tufts. So I want to do everything I can to close that opportunity gap.”

Tufts senior Bailey Werner received a $3,500 grant through the Career Center to intern this summer at Groundwork Somerville, an environmental non-profit. Without the grant, she would not have been able to accept the unpaid internship or live in her off-campus house.

She could not definitively accept the internship, however until she was offered the grant on May 1. She worried that her employer would want to hire someone else instead.  

“If your ability to work at the internship is contingent upon your receipt of the grant, then you have to tell your potential employer that you cannot actually accept the internship until May 1,” Werner told the Daily in an electronic message. “So you have to let your internship pend for almost a month, which is unfortunate for both the intern and the employer, since you are presumably holding the spot of someone who might be able to definitely work.”

Had Werner not received the grant, she also would have had to find a subletter for her off-campus house during the summer months, since she would not have been able to afford living there.

“I was really stressed that if I ended up not getting the grant, I would have to start the search for a subletter on May 1, which is pretty late in the game,” she said. “Additionally, I would be left without any plans for the summer. Luckily, in my case, it worked out.”

Victory said the $3,500 grant is meant to support students interning for 350 hours, meaning that students make at most $10 per hour from the grant.

When factoring in the rent students pay to live near Tufts — $750 per month in Werner's case — Werner said the grant makes an unpaid internship, “doable, but definitely not easy.”

“Maybe [the grant] should be need-based, first and foremost,” she said. “The…Career Center said they consider the financial standing of the student when they look at applications, but I know multiple students who received the grant and who would have been able to accept their unpaid internship [regardless].”

Weitzman was denied a Tufts internship grant this summer, but the Career Center suggested he look for other grants given by non-profit and governmental organizations. As a result, he applied for and received a $2,000 grant from the New Hampshire State Society (NHSS). This covered some of his summer housing, food and transportation costs in D.C., which he otherwise would have paid entirely out of his own pocket.

“While I didn’t receive the Tufts funding, [the Career Center] was helpful in advising me to find another grant,” Weitzman said. “I was planning on basically burning through my entire life savings this summer, but this [NHSS] grant has allowed me a little more flexibility with my options.”

Though the Career Center is looking to expand grant opportunities for unpaid internships, Victory said they also want to ensure that Tufts students’ internships meet the six criteria that make unpaid internships legal as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Under this act, an unpaid internship must be done for the benefit of the intern, similar to a training session or an educational experience. Additionally, the intern cannot do the same work a paid employee would do, the company or organization cannot immediately benefit from the intern’s work, the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job after the internship and both the employer and the intern must know the intern will not be paid for their work.  

However, Victory said as long as universities and students throughout the country continue to legitimize unpaid internships that might not be legal, it is difficult for Tufts to fix this problem.

“There is a part of me that wants to wave a magic wand and say Tufts won’t post an internship [on Jumbo Jobs] unless it meets this criteria, but unless we get our sister institutions to do the same, we might not be able to do that,” he said.

One way that employers can be sure that an unpaid internship is legal is by offering students course credit in exchange for their work, as a way to prove that the internship is for the benefit of the student’s education. But Victory said that students do not always need the extra credits, and during the summer, students must pay tuition to receive credit, which he feels is not always fair.

“It’s like, what are you paying for?” he said. “If there’s a faculty member associated with the [course credit], and they’re coming in and supporting it, then maybe there’s a small administrative fee to cover someone’s time, but I don’t feel like you should be paying whatever the standard tuition is.”  

Reflecting on his internship this summer, Weitzman said he knows of many qualified people who were not able to have a fulfilling internship experience like his due to a variety of constraints.  

“It definitely helps to have money in order to be able to do this,” he said. “And I can see that clearly from the people I work with. They’re all wonderful people, but they’re able to do this because they can afford to.”