Class Divide in Internships

Last summer I was hired as an intern for an education advocacy group in Seattle. It was my first time working as an intern and it took me several months to secure one for the summer. I have a year left before graduating from college. Facing a competitive job market after graduation, I decided to join the ranks of the burgeoning intern market to give a shot of protein to my resume.

Quickly, I realized the class wars hiding underneath the surface of internships. I was working as an intern 20 hours a week while holding down 40 hours a week in my grocery store job. Whenever I could, I picked up catering shifts for a local non-profit restaurant. The other interns were younger than me and they enjoyed full social lives on top of our internships. One of them was an intern for a second nonprofit; another was taking a “fun” summer class. Neither of them had jobs. For the duration of the summer, I was driving back and forth to Seattle and the Eastside, working 12 hours a day juggling my Sushi chef job and my Communications internship.

Despite all the hours I was working, most of my paycheck went to paying for the 520 bridge tolls—during the time I spent in my internship, less than three months, I must have spent almost $500 in Good2Go payments. On top of that was all the gas I was consuming driving back and forth.  I was exhausted and cranky from working all those hours and whatever free time I had left was used applying energetically for scholarships. My financial aid package does not even cover tuition, and I am terrified of taking on student loan debt.

Every day I would sit next to the impossibly fresh-faced intern next to me and I would taste the green envy in my mouth. I was jealous of her privileged lifestyle and the advantages that come with it. She was a member of a sorority in her school and during the long hot days of that summer, the rest of her day was spent lounging around in the sun. I was mostly stuck in traffic on the way to work in the Eastside, where I was expected to work another eight hours.

Still, I was lucky to have been hired as an intern. I can now use that internship to impress future employers, but the reality was that I was deflated and defeated from the experience. I keep thinking about all the students who will graduate with me next year. Where will they go after college? What about the students who truly cannot work as an intern? Most internships are unpaid. You are lucky to find an internship that pays above minimum wage.

I know a company in one wealthy city that hires almost exclusively friends and family members of their staff. One of their interns was getting paid handsomely. I enjoy success in myself and in others. Unfortunately, this overpaid intern flunked out of his Engineering major and had to change majors the last minute. Lucky for him, he had connections within the company. His academic failure didn’t deter the management from hiring him and placing him on top of the Hire list as soon as he graduates. He is what you would consider a part of the status quo—white, male, affluent. As I was driving back and forth my jobs I caught sight of him on the side of the road and I thought how great it was to be a white male in America. I, on the other hand, an Asian American female, would have work one hundred times harder to even get the chance to answer phones in his company. That job is already taken— by a white, female, affluent member of their exclusive, nepotistic society.

2 Responses

  1. CP

    A great post. I can really feel that frustration and have been there myself. I used to work in private schools where I worked 120+hrs a week and was paid about the monthly allowance of the students. It was galling. The exhaustion factor works against the lower-class intern too because everyone only wants to hire “perky” and “energetic.” I often wonder if those are just code for “owning class young person.”

    I’ve never been able to swing internships, where I could even apply for them, because I have either had to work or parent and work. Currently it seems the only way into a job of any worth is through an unpaid internship, at least in my skill-set-path. If you’re over 40 I’ve noticed they won’t even hire an unpaid intern of such an “advanced age” let alone a paid one. Being a white male, it’s always assumed I have an advantage or an “in.” Truth is that only works for white men who are of the “right” socio-economic class (owning or upper middle). Most Entertainment industry interns are unpaid and most are (or were) reserved for women and POC; white males need not apply. Generally speaking, I don’t mind that there are spaces reserved; it’s important to rebalance scales where ever there are institutionalized imbalances. Makes it harder for me, irritating whenever I hear that my gender/pigmentation gives me advantages I never actually get, but whatever. It was frustrating when I was younger because without class privilege those vital unpaid internships were the point of access to the paid jobs I was skilled for and wanted. In some industries it’s all about your class position anyway. For me, the real damage I’ve experienced is that the jobs I was able to get through vigorous networking and friends who actually had internships and vouched for me, used to pay (and well), but are no longer available because unpaid interns fresh out of college or still in school get them and “old” guys like me don’t. With two kids I never could afford to work for free or take more than three PT jobs at a time juggling kids and work anyway.

  2. Ruzielle Ganuelas

    Thanks for your response. One of my virtual mentors at WSU told me her story about being a non-traditional college student (she was in her 30’s), having two kids, working 40 hours a week and juggling 5 classes. She applied for an accounting job and the hiring manager asked why she didn’t do an internship. Holy smokes! Nobody with her schedule and her lifestyle can do an internship, it’s absolutely absurd! I read “Intern Nation” and in that book, the author said entry level jobs are going extinct because companies are replacing them with unpaid internship positions. It’s a terrible situation for all of us. I recently the memoir of the (Hispanic) woman who lead the team that built I didn’t know it was a minority female who was the brainchild and the leader of the All I heard was Rich Barton (formerly of founded, I found out from the book he was actually the Marketing Manager. But being super rich, and being in the upper echelons of society he had an instant “in” at Microsoft. He got away with playing golf with the guys while the rest of the team worked themselves to death. And of course he moved up in the upper ranks of Microsoft and her career stagnated to the point she had to leave Microsoft. It’s absolutely true that it’s not what you know, but who you know.

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