“You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
This principle is perfectly applicable to finding out whether or not you like raw seafood or can pull off red lipstick. In contrast, I think it is an ideology that has been pinned to the likes of career pursuit, and specifically for college students, navigating their soon-to-be-figured worlds of study, to the likes of internships, and wrongfully so.
In this final stretch of my sophomore year, I’ve spent countless hours begrudgingly and haphazardly sending my resume out to almost every publishing house and magazine editorial office I could find, checking my email neurotically in hopes of a single response. I got one: a rejection notice from Penguin Random House. Otherwise, responses have either not been made, or they’ve been questions about how I would feel accepting an opportunity to work 16-24 hours a week, unpaid, for 16 weeks. While I would love to surrender my barista position in the name of intern work, it’s not something that seems quite plausible. I could, hypothetically, work 3 days a week as a barista, and 2-3 days a week as an intern, never take a vacation, never sleep, perhaps never eat, and then return to school in the fall, wondering how in the hell I could balance working 6 days a week and going to school 2 days a week— making for a total of eight days in a week? It’s not scientifically possible.
The expectation of students to be able to give up their summers, which they worked tirelessly to reach, in the name of unpaid job experience, is atrocious. I may not be the next Mark Twain, but I am an objectively hard worker (as my resume highlights), and taking advantage of such a facet by trying to lure me into working three 8 hour days without so much as a minimum wage paycheck makes me not want to involve myself in the people in my own field. I think of the work I could potentially be doing: punching numbers into a system, filing paperwork, exercising my coffee-order memory skills, and I wonder how any of that at all is representative of my skill set.
I understand there’s this sort of 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying' mindset that all college students are expected to take on as they enter their field (especially a more liberal arts-centric one), but for many and most, what ends up happening is that they take this job, they’re fine at it (because how can you be anything more than fine at filing names into a computer?), and they perform similar work for the rest of their life, never once given the opportunity to showcase what they worked so hard at in college. Even the most interactive of internships can be less-than-fruitful if you don’t get paid to do them, and that leaves so many kids who work other jobs unable to make time in their schedule to work for no pay.
Circumstantially, not everyone is capable of taking on a position to gain experience alone. It’s really hard to work and go to school full-time. For most, it’s impossible, which is why so many kids don’t have jobs when they go away to school. And that’s good for those kids, and hopefully they fill that time they could be flipping patties or brewing coffee doing good for their academics, joining clubs and working on-campus activities. For those that do work, there should be a different standard of on-campus participation. I make time for school, for theater, for writing, and for work, but also I sleep four hours a night and power through on several cups of coffee.
Penguin Random House, please remind me why you didn’t want to give me a chance? Was it because I’m not in the democratic socialist club, or is it because I don’t have a polished portfolio and a 4.0? Should I have generated a third arm somewhere in my own evolution to be able to balance all of the work that I have to do in order to be good enough for your establishment? Or was there just no positions open, all filled with little hoity-toities from private schools upstate who get to sublet a $1500-a-month room in SoHo for the summer, still finding time in their schedule to make it out to the Hamptons a few times before returning to classes? Will they get the internship? And then after college, the job?
I don’t mean to paint myself out to be a charity case: I have loving and supportive parents, and I am certain that if I whined and begged, I would be able to find a way to make an unpaid internship work and wallow in the misery of refilling printer toner for 8 weeks. But I know, and I think my parents know, that I am better than to subject myself to that sort of misery. I would rather work hard as an independent because ultimately I’m entering a field that is so rooted in the independence of effort and work ethic, and then see the fruits of those labors. I would rather slave over getting my own computer to work, sharing stories and workshopping and getting my own, perhaps not an adult world, but real-time hands-on practice with people, than be an office monkey for my whole summer and receive zero retribution.
Experience is subjective, and what I can’t understand about internships is how they function as the only gateway to a field already so narrowed by demand. All circumstances are different, and whether you’re writing pieces to be unpublished at an office in Midtown, or you’re at home putting passion into your own private works that you self-publish, you’re nevertheless gaining experience in time management and proving your own capabilities. Either way, there’s no payment, and either way, you come out having achieved something. But, in only one way have you done it from the comfort of your home computer, cocooned in blankets, still in your pajamas. In that respect, internships can kiss my behind.