By Mayha Syed
For many students, an internship is an exciting opportunity to put their education into action, gain work experience, and determine whether or not a job is right for them. But what if the experience isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be? Hi there! My name is Mayha, I’m a junior, and last year, I finished an unpaid internship with a non-profit organization. In this blog post, I’ll be reflecting on a negative internship experience I had, being an unpaid intern, and some advice for students in the same situation.
My internship began in the summer of 2022 with a Texas-based organization that I believed was completely aligned with my values. It was an extremely competitive program, with only four interns chosen from 435 applicants, and I was honored to be a part of it. The workload was heavy, and the workplace was fast-paced; I expected it to be an experience that would help me grow not only intellectually, but also professionally. However, things quickly turned sour. Although the organization’s leadership was also South Asian, I became a target for racist remarks disguised as jokes. In one case, the organization’s executive director mocked my name, calling me “Mayhem” instead of my given name. Constructive criticism devolved into belittlement, and the workplace made me feel inept as an intern and as a person. Despite my consistent efforts to contribute to the organization’s work, such as authoring two pieces of legislation that are slated to pass in the Texas legislature and several blog posts for the organization, I was never given credit for any of this. I felt completely alone and burnt out from the constant negative responses from the organization, but I couldn’t get HR or other help because the organization didn’t have a department for these services, so I forced myself to complete the program.
In reflecting on this experience, I recalled that the internship was unpaid. For nearly eight months of work, interns were not paid anything but instead told that we had gained an “invaluable experience” and could contact the leadership of the organization in case we ever needed a professional reference. Unpaid internships are a reality for many college students, as they account for more than 40% of all interns in the United States (Hess). It is an unfortunate reality that students who are often managing coursework, personal responsibilities, and extracurriculars are unpaid for the valuable work they do for organizations throughout the country. These unpaid experiences frequently exploit young people who are eager to get their foot in the door of the workplace and prepare for their future endeavors. Interns are an invaluable part of the workplace, and the organizations and companies that hire them should recognize their efforts through compensation, rather than relying solely on experience.
Because of the importance placed on internships as a formative experience for college students, often regarded as a requirement for success in the workplace or an avenue for future job opportunities, I stayed despite being constantly put down. However, in reflecting on this experience, and to any other student who may be in a similar situation, please understand that you do not deserve to be treated this way. We all have something to offer, and an internship that is supposed to help you grow, make connections and decide which career path is best for you should not become a place where you constantly doubt yourself. If you are working in an unsafe or toxic environment, you do not have to prove yourself to those people; you can simply leave if that is what is best for you. Most importantly, regardless of its prestige or opportunities, an internship is not more important than your mental health.
Hess, Abigail J. “More Than 40% of Interns Are Still Unpaid-Here’s the History of Why That’s Legal.” CNBC, CNBC, 17 Aug. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/17/more-than-40percent-of-interns-are-still-unpaidwhy-thats-legal.html.
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