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Students share experiences, advice for unpaid internships

Students who participate in unpaid internships take longer to find a job after graduating but are more likely to say the experience helped them verify or change career paths, a study by GoodCall said.

Tori Garrett, a public relations major, held two unpaid internships with U.S. Senator James Lankford during the 2015-2016 school year. The first internship was in his Oklahoma City office.

“I did typical intern stuff most of the time, but I also got to apply my major in public relations when I was answering phone calls and talking to his constituents about their opinions, Garrett said. “That really helped me articulate my ideas better and hold a conversation better with people whom I’m supposed to be representing someone else to. I honestly did not have any interest in politics until I started working for James Lankford, and then I found myself paying more attention to the news so I could keep up better with what I’d be doing at work.”

Garrett’s second unpaid internship with Lankford was in Washington, D.C.

“After my Oklahoma City internship, I looked up what you can do with a public relations degree in politics and realized Lankford had a press internship in his D.C. office and I went for it,” Garrett said. “I would not have figured out I wanted to do this if I had not done the unpaid internship. My mom told me I needed to see it as an investment in my future.”

Garrett said she is glad she took both of the unpaid internships because she gained experience and made connections.

“There are a lot of organizations and companies who take advantage of the unpaid labor to send them to get coffees and do general office work, but even those can be beneficial if you know it is the area you want to go into,” Garrett said. “It is still a way to network and open doors in that field. The only thing an unpaid intern is gaining is the experience, so you know they want to be there, so much so they’re willing to take a pay cut.”

Ian Jayne, an English major, interned without pay with the Oklahoma Gazette last summer.

“My internship was technically marketing and sales, but I also shadowed on the editorial side of things, so I learned a lot of valuable skills about how brands and companies manage their social media presence and work on events,” Jayne said. “I learned about how to do feature writing and news reporting, which was the most valuable thing I took away from it. It eventually turned into a freelancing job.”

According to Jayne, his internship was beneficial even without compensation.

“I would have loved to have been paid, but I recognize the tradeoff was pretty fair,” Jayne said. “I put in my time, I got to meet interesting people and I did eventually get a job out of it. So I definitely think it was worth it. My thought process was I am in college now and would rather take an unpaid internship at this point in time rather than when I’m out of college and supporting myself completely.”

Assistant Professor of Communication Joshua Watson said he thinks all for-profit companies should always pay their interns.

“The Fair Labor Standards Act, depending on how you read it, seems to suggest it is illegal to be unpaid as an intern, almost no matter what,” Watson said. “There are some exceptions about the educational experience, and most people do not condemn nonprofits for not paying interns because they have less money in general and less resources. Almost everyone I know thinks it is wrong for for-profit companies to have unpaid interns. If you are a for-profit organization, you should pay your interns, bottom line.”

Watson also said he is frustrated with people who require interns to get academic credit but do not pay them.

“Students have to pay for their academic hour, or three depending on the school, and sometimes the cost of that class is the same money you make with minimum wage pay,” Watson said. “And if you are not paid at all for the internship, you are actually losing money. It is a negative income situation to gain experience. In my mind, you need to run your business in such a way that you can afford to pay your interns if you are going to hire one.”

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