Priceless Experience

What unpaid internships mean for ambitious students

Words by Kelly Powell | Illustration by Alexis Scranton


Jonny Flower, a senior majoring in exercise science, sits in his Centennial Court E room, fulfilling his set-in-stone resident assistant community hours. Surrounding him are objects promoting responsibility—an open laptop assisting him in his 17-credit-hour course load, a smart phone buzzing with messages from his girlfriend, friends and residents, a set of car keys reminding him of his shadow position and 25 minute commute to one of two unpaid internships.

Whether for a college credit, a graduation requirement or experiential learning, numerous students at Kent State opt to take an unpaid internship. This summer, companies ranging from American Apparel to the small town boutique will open their doors to millennials eager to offer an open mind and accept an empty pocket.

Flower clocks in at 100 hours with Mercy Health Center of Lake Township starting at the tail end of summer and continuing until the final month of the year. Since Mercy is largely known as a “teaching hospital,” Flower spends a majority of his time in observation. Sorting files for patient charts, assisting physical trainers with notes and preparing rooms became the daily grind, allowing him to understand the bones of the profession.

“With physical therapy (PT), interns really can’t do much because [they’re] not certified,” Flower says. “I got to help do a couple measurements and work on different computer things. It was really valuable because Jason was dedicated to helping me not just in PT, but also in life outside of PT.”

Flower cites supervisor Jason Bell as a primary reason for a satisfying experience, even without the dollar compensation. Bell spends time doing mock interviews with him, asking Flower tough questions with the hope they will help him succeed when he applies for prestigious graduate schools. When Flower isn’t engaging in patient interaction, he is watching what Bell does, and Bell walks him through every step he takes, explaining each piece of his process.

This mentorship is a justification to Flower for his internship not being paid. He is the only intern at the hospital, accept for a woman applying for Stark State’s PTA program who stays there for four or five days over the summer. The clinic is too small to hold anyone else. Except for the couple of summer days, Flower worked the standard 9-to-5 shift. He was satisfied with having his internship be more voluntary than occupational and feels paid in knowledge.

Jonathan Fleming, program director and graduate coordinator for architecture and urban design, says students shouldn’t accept this light wallet. A summer job he held as a student compensated him for only about 40 of the 80 hours he was working every week.

“I am a really opinionated person when it comes to unpaid internships, and I always said I would never be willing to take one unless I would really enjoy doing it for free.” —Emily Gerren


“It’s a good thing to have an intern around, to bring new people, because it invigorates the environment,” he says.

On one hand, Fleming says, paid internships can only benefit the students. Student workers are able to establish a new life, even momentarily, and that shot of new perspectives and ideas might be just what a firm, publication or sector needs to advance itself. On the other hand, that doesn’t always justify a monetary payment. Compensation for many companies may come in the form of college credit, which can mean a confusing chain of finances for the intern in question.

“You have to understand that choices like unpaid internships have consequences on the back end,” Fleming says. “When you’re 20 or 18 or 21, you’re making choices that are going to cost you time later on in your life. You’re encumbering yourself by your less informed choices.”

Within the architectural discipline, he says he knows of no entity not paying Kent State students interning with them. If a summer intern is paid, the student’s experience typically “costs”the company around $1,000, and in the grand scheme of many larger firms, this barely makes a dent in their budgets. Fleming says, ethically, companies have a responsibility to financially assist interns who are churning out multiple projects per week.

That’s where the United States Department of Labor comes in—according to its six regulations, as long as interns are not doing work that benefits the company directly, it is legal for them to go without financial compensation.

“On one hand, we would love to get people to do things and not pay them because that would save us money,” Thomas Sahajdack, assistant professor of economics, says, speaking from a company’s perspective. “On the other hand, they’re not able to do anything useful to us if they come and work for us.”

Some students are willing to do the substantive work if it means simply spending time in a hub of activity they flourish in.

Emily Gerren, an alumna who majored in english, sends out queries for her newest novel-turned-thesis. “Breathe” was initially penned for National Novel Writing Month, a manuscript-in-a-month online program meant to encourage creative writers. In the middle of her querying, she logs onto Twitter and looks at the profile of Moe Ferrara from BookEnds Literary. Gerren decides to follow her, appreciating her presence on social media, and she almost immediately receives a message in her inbox, stating the company is still on the lookout for a fall intern.

Gerren spends her time at the little office in Gillette, New Jersey, with the six other agents employed by the company. Her shifts are a compilation of her filing administrative papers and helping with royalty statements, but she also gains permission to read submissions from literary hopefuls.

“My favorite part was revisions,” Gerren says. “They would give me manuscripts from their clients, and I could say, ‘Okay, this works great. This could improve.’ It went along so well with the english major because the major taught me to analyze as I read.”

Essentially, this presents a gray area—labor varies in different industries. Contrary to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers work on a sliding scale, granting interns fluctuating responsibilities. In Gerren’s case, her literary internship allows her to speak up in meetings rather than be sent out on coffee runs. Whether or not this is considered “valuable” to the company’s production is dependent on the size and magnitude of its operation. Gerren was satisfied with doing more but earning less.

“I am a really opinionated person when it comes to unpaid internships, and I always said I would never be willing to take one unless I would really enjoy doing it for free,” she says. “I did a marketing internship with the company my dad works for, which provided me with gas and food money, and I was able to stay with [some old friends].”

Unpaid internships operate on a case-by-case basis; for example, some students are financially unable to take one after analysis of their income. Despite promises of a meaningful experience, the dollar signs don’t always line up with the starry eyes.

“Our human nature is to try to create the best scenario,” says Robin Pijor, assistant director of Kent State Career Services. “If you want to align your job duties and the function of that particular internship with your degree, you have to be the one to decide, ‘is the money part important to me?’ Those students who try to create the best scenario oftentimes make it harder on themselves because the best scenario doesn’t exist.”

Pijor says it doesn’t matter whether the student’s experience “takes place in a construction site, an office setting or a kitchen.” The priority is that the student gains something, despite what their bank account looks like at the end of it.

“There’s this big idea in economics of human capital, which is essentially investing in yourself because it’s capital that, once you have it, it can’t be taken away,” Sahajdack says. “One popular theory is to improve yourself, to improve your outlook. One of the best things you can do is invest in [that].”

Likewise, some may begin to open their minds to the idea of a smaller salary, especially if the payoff is networking with the best of the best. Businesses thrive primarily through social relationships and secondarily through financial earnings. It’s the idea of meeting people some may never have the opportunity to meet again, forming connections with higher-ups that could lead to a full-time job, or at the very least, a recommendation on a resume.

The resume has become the constitution of internships in the respect that it is a living, breathing document echoing powerful statements about the people. Sahajdack refers to this self-presentation with the economical idea of signaling. This phenomenon describes the implications that come with simple lines of text on a page. If an individual can record they completed their college degree, it sends signals to employers—they are capable of handling a lot at once, they have knowledge in the field they wish to enter.

“Getting an internship, then, and completing it, may send a signal to a company that you’re an employable person,” Sahajdack says. “Even if that internship is basically garbage, even if what you do there is essentially useless, there might be some value in that signal.”

Being hired by an ideal employer may even have roots before a student’s undergraduate career. Hillary Stone, internship coordinator for the Fashion School, says if the experience is written correctly, it can market the student as the total package because of their roles at the department store or the fast food restaurant. Before ascending into the dream job, reality has some great benefit to an individual in the meantime.

“I love the kid that worked at the grocery store or McDonald’s,” Stone says. “Years ago on resumes, you would list your skills: dedicated team member, people-oriented, compliant—you don’t do that anymore. The key is communication on paper, professionally and interpersonally.”

Flower shakes hands with a clinical intern named Alex during one of his shifts at Mercy Medical Hospital. Alex explains he attends Walsh University, which is one of Flower’s graduate school dreams. Being only one year younger than Alex, Flower feels like he can ask him anything, and Alex lights up as he speaks about the professors he should talk to and the programs he should look into.

“People who take on interns typically have that mentorship personality,” Stone says. “We have the entrepreneur, the boutique owner and the company owner of a small establishment that engages a student and takes them on as their [mentee]. They bring them to workshops and buying trips and help them interpersonally develop. They become a partner and show them the ropes of what it means to be a professional.”

Whether the student is working with mannequins, blueprints, drafts or workout mats, their experiences will inevitably be different than those of a full-time employee. Typically, the learning aspect of the program will take precedence over the routine, assignment-driven component steady staff members encounter.

“You’re there to contribute, but be guided and worked with,” Stone says. “It’s different than going to work every day where you’ve had your training and you [go] straight to work. The autonomy is different for a student doing an internship versus an employee.”

However, some companies are under the mindset that because they are spending money on a personalized program for the intern, that technically leaves them exempt from paying the individual on a weekly basis. The intern is still producing work for the company, and the company is still compensating for the intern’s educational experience.

“It’s certainly not in the spirit of the requirements for the internship, but there is a gray area there and I think that’s how a lot of companies approach it, saying, ‘well yes, the intern is going to benefit us,’” Sahajdack says. “If they see you getting coffee and scanning documents, and if they see you do a good enough job of that for free, why would they pay you if they can get someone else to do it for free?”

In Sahajdack’s Principles of Microeconomics course, he teaches a lesson on supply and demand. This lesson details that if you shift the supply curve, you see the price go down. In other words, if employers add several workers to the low end of the market, the price is expected to decrease as well. Because of this, employees are not being displaced. Rather, there are a greater number of people competing for the same jobs with lesser financial reward.

Similarly, Pijor cautions students to remember they are not only competing amongst Kent State hopefuls, but against thousands of students across the United States and acknowledges the difficulty in someone’s ink standing out within the pile of resumes.

“Finding out what we don’t like gets us to what we do like,” she says. “It’s a little bit of work along the way, but everything worth having, you work for.”