Is an unpaid internship worth it?

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Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Part of the college experience is being able to apply the knowledge gained from classes towards our desired career paths. An internship is a hands-on experience that puts a student’s knowledge to the test. At UAA, students are able to take on internships as a form of a three-credit upper division class.

Internships are becoming more of a demand in all fields of studies; internships vary from unpaid to paid, and unpaid internships have been a controversial topic with students who want to get their foot in the door to their careers.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet #17, the qualifications for a legitimate and legal unpaid internship are the following:

– The employer is to clearly state to the intern that there is no compensation unless clearly stating they are an employee and will be compensated

– The internship is applied as academic credit

– The internship accommodates their academic schedule

– The internship’s duration provides beneficial educational learning

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– The intern’s work complements rather than displaces current employees’ work

– There is a mutual understanding that the internship is taking place without an entitlement of a paid job after the internship

So, does an unpaid internship have benefits equally valuable as a paid internship? For some UAA students, the experience is enough to compensate for the absence of pay.

“Last summer I participated in an unpaid internship position for three months over the summer in Anchorage. I absolutely loved it. Over the course of my time with that company, I was able to work completely hands on with the equipment, materials and staff each shift,” Joley Hodgson, recent graduate in the journalism department, said in an email. “During my internship I also worked another job. If you’re able to manage your time well, this is always a good option.”

Unpaid internships are a hot topic in the realm for students because parents, professors and employers emphasize the need for real life experience. Some UAA students like Young Kim, a UAA alumnus and former employee of The Northern Light, have taken both unpaid and paid internships. Although he has taken both, an unpaid internship is a valuable asset.

“I did an unpaid internship at the Anchorage Press and a paid internship at [the Anchorage Daily News], and at both I feel like I learned a lot. The paid internship felt more like a job than a traditional internship, in my opinion. Being unpaid at the Anchorage Press felt like I needed to make the most out of it, and it was more my responsibility to make it worth my while,” Kim said in an email. “I understand the argument that unpaid internships are designed for those who have financial backing and exclude those who can’t afford it, but I think if there is an internship opportunity that you think it’s worth it, you’ll make it work regardless of the situation.”

The pros of an unpaid internship can be credited in the form of class credits, hands-on experience in a student’s desired career field, job prospects and networking.

This can also apply to paid internships, yet there can be a downside to those who are interested in unpaid internships.

Taking on an unpaid internship can be seen as “free labor” depending on if the position meets the U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet #17. It can also isolate students that cannot afford to take on an unpaid internship, and does not help the student debt crisis.

So, is it worth it? An unpaid internship can be worthwhile, but it depends on a student’s financial stability, time and needs.