June 20, 2018

Intern Stories (And Other Tales of Woe)

By Julie Depenbrock

The Running of the Interns, a Capitol Hill tradition, is pretty much what it sounds like. Interns of news organizations run to deliver results of major Supreme Court decisions to the press.

The Running of the Interns, a Capitol Hill tradition, is pretty much what it sounds like. Interns of news organizations run to deliver results of major Supreme Court decisions to the press.

For many, a summer internship in Washington is a rite of passage — and a gateway to future jobs.

But the role of the intern has almost always been unpaid.

Now, after years of pressure and a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court, more and more employers are opting to pay their interns. And last week, in a historic move, the United States Senate voted to pay all of its interns starting in 2019.

On the Kojo Show, we took a look at how the definition of the “intern” has evolved over the years, and what the Senate’s move could mean for unpaid interns everywhere. We also heard story after story detailing what it’s like to be an intern in Washington. Some were paid, others unpaid. Was it worth it? Were they treated well? Read on:


Many years ago I interned at [a major arts organization in D.C.].  I was paid a few pennies, had to fight the traffic from Annandale, Va., where I lived with my parents because of the low intern pay, and was generally treated like trash by most everyone in the office.  I used to “run away” from my office and hide out with the tourists on the terrace.  And I’d look out and see people out at 11 on a Tuesday — rowing on the river or jogging.  And I thought, whatever job they have, I want THAT job.  I’ve worked too hard to deserve this lifestyle or treatment.  So I quit the internship halfway through and moved on — eventually becoming a college athletic coach.


I interned in D.C. two times in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, I did three months, four days a week, at [an international nonprofit] for a $600 stipend (approximately $2 an hour). I paid living expenses with student loans and also earned college credits and took a night class and a Friday morning class. In 2008, I interned at [a nonprofit focused on education] for minimum wage and took the $6 bus in from Prince William County/Dumfries.


I moved to D.C. to intern for a senator. Luckily, I had a relative to stay with. I was only able to serve for three months due to financial constraints and having no health-care coverage. This was ironic given my senator was a proponent of single-payer healthcare!


As a rising senior in college, I am currently working in my fourth unpaid internship. Every winter, I apply for no fewer than 20-30 summer internships, and I have found both the paid and unpaid positions to be competitive. The paid ones are far and few between in my field of interest, and they are enormously tough to get because of their high applicant pool. All of my unpaid internships offered some sort of perk, like college credit (which, of course, I have to pay for), a transportation stipend, limited paid administrative work, free t-shirts, etc. It’s frustrating to know I’m not getting financially compensated for my hard work at all of these organizations. I deeply recognize my privilege in being able to take unpaid work — that my parents help me pay for my rent and groceries and such. Still, it’s upsetting, and as I’m a year away from graduation, I’m thinking constantly about jobs that both satisfy my passions, and pay me well.


Only privileged folks can actually afford to work for free. The rest of us still have to pay rent that’s too damn high.


I am a student at American University where many students are required to have an internship in order to graduate with their major. Not only are students essentially paying to work at an unpaid internship, students are also forced to pay tuition to fulfill an internship requirement. 


I’m a master’s student in my second summer as an intern at the Corps of Engineers; they have long paid their interns. I was previously a part-time unpaid intern (while working full time) at a D.C.-based nonprofit. What I have noticed when applying to be an intern with other agencies is that for those that pay interns, they will often only make offers to those who have two years of university experience — or even a graduate degree.

Have an internship horror story — or success story — you’d like to share? Email kojo@wamu.org! Use the subject line “Intern.”


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