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No dolla dolla bills, y’all

Do unpaid internships, they said. It will get you places, they said.

In all actuality, the symptoms of an unpaid intern may include (results may vary): frequent exhaustion and sleep deprivation, missing class to fulfill internship obligations, missing assignments for said classes, slogging through a few hours of commute time, getting home at ungodly hours of the night after long shifts, losing money to travel expenses (because some don’t even cover that), and in some cases, a few new abilities to add to your skill set.

If you google “unpaid internships,” the first result is the homepage of the Unpaid Interns Lawsuit Website, spearheaded by the Outten and Golden firm, which frequently represents unpaid interns in class action lawsuits against their employers. In 2013, NBCUniversal was sued for $250,000 on behalf of disgruntled unpaid interns who believed they had not only been overworked, but not adequately compensated for their hours. In fact, they weren’t compensated at all. In addition, huge media moguls like Fox Searchlight and Conde Nast were also slapped with lawsuits through Outten and Golden. Unpaid internship lawsuits have since begun to spring up all over the country. On Tuesday, April 15, New York City approved a law that would grant unpaid interns grounds to sue “if they are harassed or discriminated against by an employer,” said a recent New York Times story.

Here’s how the U.S. Department of Labor defines an intern:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

I myself have had multiple experiences with unpaid internships. They haven’t all been bad; I had one unpaid internship during the summer of 2013 that I really enjoyed. The staff was wonderful, professional and treated me with respect, like a member of the team. Today, we still have amiable contact and I am personally invested in their organization’s continued success. Sure, I wasn’t getting paid, and I couldn’t score a paid job on the side, but the return value was worth it to me, and the relationships I had the chance to build are ones I treasure.

In my professional field–journalism and media–it is a well-documented reality that most of the internships in this arena are unpaid, and we’ve mostly been told that that’s just the name of the game.

You have to do the leg work. You have to fight your way to the top. You have to climb.

You have to start somewhere: at the bottom.

It’s fine to start at the bottom, but if the bottom means we either aren’t learning anything we don’t already know how to do, or are doing as much as another staff member would do (or more than that) and not getting paid for it, what’s the point of that? According to the US Department of Labor, the intern should essentially be a company or organization’s investment. The work the intern does should not benefit the company; rather, it should advance the intern’s understanding of their chosen discipline in some way, whether it be through a project that a company doesn’t use or being closely mentored by an employee.

One aspect of unpaid internships I’ve noticed is that interns are technically compensated, just not monetarily; many companies and organizations write, in bold, under their internship descriptions that the intern must provide proof of enrollment in school and be able to present documentation that says they will receive school credit for the internship. However, some schools, like Mills, have implemented a process that requires a student to list the academic aspects of the internship, which will then be reviewed by a committee to determine whether the student will receive academic credit for it.

So, what do students do if they can’t receive academic credit? What if the internship doesn’t seem to have many academic qualities to speak of?

Is it just free labor? Seems like it.

The job market has looked bleak for college graduates lately. As students furiously try to cram internship experience into their resumes before they graduate and find themselves unable to translate their internship duties into marketable skills, the question becomes: are these unpaid internships even worth it?

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Glee GIF from