More colleges helping out with the financial burdens of internships

July 31, 2011

A few months ago, College of William and Mary student Nick Reck was selected for a summer internship in a senator’s office on Capitol Hill. He excitedly accepted the unpaid spot, even though he couldn’t afford it.

“It was not a question of if I would do this or not, it was a question of how I would do this,” said Reck, 20, a rising junior from Pennsylvania who is mostly paying for college by himself with loans.

His grandfather in Arlington offered him a free place to stay, and the university gave him $1,250 to cover Metro fare, food and other expenses as part of a scholarship for students doing public service internships.

As career centers and college advisers push students to take on at least one internship, administrators have begun to address the financial burden that often accompanies internships, especially unpaid ones. A number of schools have established or increased financial aid for interns in the past few years, although no one formally tracks such programs.

Alumni or parents of students usually fund the awards, which can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. Often the scholarships are limited to low-income students or those working at nonprofit organizations, although some can be used by any student for any internship.

“We just want students to have the opportunity,” said Clay Clemens, a William and Mary government professor who helps to coordinate internship awards. “We hated to see them pass up on an internship because it was unpaid, and they had to weigh waiting tables, on one hand, or getting experience.”

William and Mary has three endowed funds from private donors totaling about $3 million to support a variety of interns, which Clemens said is dwarfed by the amount of money available for students doing summer research projects. The university recently streamlined its application process to make it easier for interns to receive the funding they need.

Many programs focus on public-interest internships, which encompass many of the unpaid positions available in D.C. This summer, 16 interns received $3,000 each from the University of Virginia Parents Committee, which first launched the awards in 2005 with 10 interns. Bucknell University’s Public Interest Program Internship Fund gave 40 students $2,500 stipends this summer, up from 25 students when the fund started in 2004.

And it’s not just four-year institutions: Montgomery College partnered with the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to offer students a three-credit honors course that includes an internship and a $1,100 stipend.

With the tough job market, internships have never been more popular, and many employers now expect to see real-world experience on the resumes of recent graduates. Nationally, more than half of the Class of 2011 had at least one internship in college, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and many undergraduates complete more than one internship.

“A degree from a top liberal arts college is no longer enough. Employers want to see experience,” said David Bell, senior associate director of the career center at Hamilton College in New York, which handed out about 35 awards this summer ranging from $1,000 to $4,500. “There are a lot of barriers to getting a summer internship, and we want to remove as many barriers as possible.”

This is especially true with low-income students, who often need to work during the summer to save up money for the next school year. Taking an internship requires many students to finance the experience using student loan money, cash from parents, savings or credit cards.

Iman Newsome, a rising senior at Trinity Washington University, spent last summer working at a Foot Locker to earn money. This summer she is doing research and organizing events for Tamika & Friends, a nonprofit in Prince George’s County focusing on women’s health and cervical cancer prevention. She is one of seven Trinity students who are paid $3,000 for a 10-week internship with a nonprofit organization.

“If it wasn’t for that, I would probably be in retail or something else,” said Newsome, 21, who grew up in the District and is studying nursing. “You have to have experience under your belt. ... It’s not just, ‘What are your grades?’ It’s also, ‘What have you done?’ ”

And there are other ways universities are helping: Several colleges outside the District have established dorms in the area so students can use their student loans to pay for summer housing. Howard University has a work-for-housing program during the summer that gives about 300 students free room and board if they work 15 to 20 hours a week for the university when they are not taking classes, working or doing an internship.

“It’s a 24-hour schedule, nights and weekends and everything,” said Marc D. Lee, Howard’s dean of residence life. “They fit it in when they can.”

This summer, William & Mary’s satellite campus in the District started to give students with need $500 out of a general fund to cover Metro fare for the summer and maybe a few lunches. They were inspired to do so by a first-generation college student who had to turn down an internship at the Discovery Channel last year because her family couldn’t afford it.

“It would have just put her on a whole new level for employment” opportunities after college, said Adam Anthony, director of the Washington Office, who hopes to quickly grow the pot of money with help from alumni in the D.C. area. “But the parent just didn’t want to take out more loans.”

Read more stories from D.C., Maryland and Virginia on PostLocal.com.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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