A Sprinkling of Maturity in '09 Intern Crop

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

In their late teens and early 20s, they thought they had found their dream jobs: Sameer Ranade ran political campaigns and worked in a senator's office on the Hill. Anna Whitmey managed a hair salon and had more than 280 regular clients. Derek Steiger served in the Army, standing guard at President Ronald Reagan's funeral and President George W. Bush's inauguration.

But then they hit their mid-20s and changed their minds.

So this summer, they are interns -- copying, stapling, fetching coffee, entering data and trying to navigate a sea of even younger D.C. interns.

"I don't want to be a den mother," said Whitmey, 26, the former hair stylist who is now a senior at the University of Southern California and lives with four other unpaid interns in a Georgetown University dorm. "I keep telling myself, 'You are so lame; just be cool.' "

Officials at several large internship programs in the District say they do not keep statistics on the average age of interns, but a majority of the more than 15,000 interns who descend upon the District each summer -- especially the unpaid ones -- are traditional undergraduates. The Fund for American Studies, which arranges for students to get college credit from Georgetown, placed about 380 interns this summer, only a handful of whom were older than 25.

The Washington Internship Program, a placement service that caters to non-students, has three times as many interns this summer because of the poor job market, said chief executive Lev Bayer. Of its 300 interns, about a quarter are over 25, including one who is 58.

"We find it a lot easier to place older interns," he said. "As you get older, you know what you want to do a lot more, whereas a lot of the college kids are using the internship as a sounding board" for careers they might want to pursue.

Although many of the older interns are still in their 20s and look young enough to get carded, their handful of extra years of life experience can make it more of a challenge to attack menial assignments with the same gusto as a younger counterpart.

"I always tell adults starting internships: 'Be ready to swallow your pride. And when you're asked to get coffee, don't roll your eyes,' " said Lauren Berger, 25, who had 15 internships while she was a student at the University of Central Florida. She now lives in Los Angeles and runs a Web site called internqueen.com, charging $20 for résumé or cover letter "makeovers."

When Whitmey started her internship at Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that coordinates social events and jobs for people with intellectual disabilities, she quickly adopted a different attitude from her days as a stylist. "There's a huge amount of ego that goes into cutting hair. You have to be an expert at everything," she said, whereas now she worries about sounding cocky.

Ranade, 28, is the oldest of 11 interns at the Alliance to Save Energy, where his duties include writing raps about the environment, Twittering, commenting on news stories and regularly dressing up as the "Energy Hog," an energy-wasting mascot. The hog costume makes him hot and sweaty and scared a group of toddlers at the Fairfax County Fair in early June.

It's a change of pace for Ranade, who has "been riding the magical carpet ride of politics" since he graduated from Washington State University in 2003: a communications gig in the statehouse, two years as a full-time staffer in a senator's office on the Hill, then working on congressional and presidential campaigns. He returned to the District after the inauguration and waited for President Obama to call with a White House job offer.

That call never came, and Ranade worked for five temp agencies as he applied to graduate schools. He figured that an environment-related internship was a good way to spend the summer, even if it meant less money, before he starts on a master's degree program in public administration at the University of Washington this fall. He did not qualify for internships at the White House or several federal agencies, which require applicants either to be enrolled in school or recent graduates.

Although Ranade's fellow interns, who range in age from 18 to 23, are focused on bonding as an intern class and attending as many meet-and-greets as possible, Ranade often skips happy hour so he can read at home. He also took a week off work to attend his 10-year high school reunion.

"I'm pretty much like the grandfather of the team," he said.

There are several things that make Steiger, 26, feel older than his fellow interns at the Treasury Department and his four roommates in the Georgetown dorms: He spent three years in the Army and two in the National Guard. His parents don't bail him out when his car breaks down. And he has a wife and 9-month-old daughter.

Plus, "they are always saying: 'Let's go to Adams Morgan! Let's go to Adams Morgan!' I hate Adams Morgan," said Steiger, who will be a senior at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

Although Steiger says he has enjoyed the bustling city life, networking and taking classes at night, he misses seeing his family and hanging with people his own age.

"I've been out of my comfort zone for two months now," he said, "and I'd like to go back to it."

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