My Problem with Unpaid Internships

Just before graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I secured a promising internship at Wells Fargo. At the time, I wanted to pursue a career in communications and the internship, an internal corporate communications position, promised the means to do so.

Unlike a few of my classmates who were afraid to leave, I longed for graduation and the transition to the working world with great anticipation in large part because of the internship. Although, I understood many of fellow students apprehension to venture into working world given the tight competition along with the added burden of paying off student loans. Still, I wanted to give it a try and the internship was a great starting point.

One major factor made it even possible for me to accept the internship; it was a paid internship. When interviewing for the position, I made it clear to the manger that while excited, I couldn’t accept a full-time position, especially one requiring relocation, without pay. Simple as that. Luckily for me, Wells Fargo paid $15/hr (which is quite a lot for a young professional) and provided relocation assistance to Minneapolis. With those requirements being met, I left Wisconsin for Minnesota to work at Wells Fargo.

The overall experience was amazing; I wrote a blog aimed at college students entering the workforce (using, of course, my own experiences as a guide). In addition, I honed my skills as a young professional through networking with various professionals, witness how a large corporation handle changes to their businesses regardless of how I feel about the company now with its numerous scandals, the internship provided a solid foundation from which to grow.

My growth wouldn’t have been possible without being paid. If you read my other postings, I make it clear, I am a first-generation college student from a working-class background. During my undergraduate years, I worked part-time via work study, took classes full-time, as well as participated in numerous extracurricular activities. That’s just the way it was for some of us, at least.

And this is why I am so against free internships. As I research internships as a young student and even after I completed my internship with Wells Fargo, I discovered some amazing opportunities. Such opportunities range from working at top companies locally, nationally, or even internationally providing students access to a strong network, ability to build skills and adding such experience on their resume, almost enduring better positions down the line. Some of these internships would hire the top interns should they successfully completed the program. Awesome, right? But again, here is the problem, many of them required full-time work without pay, either during the summer or post-graduation. Those that did pay still paid barely passed the minimum wage for doing part-time work.

So, what is the problem with this? Simple, it strengthens and reproduces inequality in various ways.


1. Living Expenses and Possible Burnout: Many students and new graduates can’t work either full-time or part-time without pay. Companies are asking students to put in a 30 to 40-hour work week and then go home without a paycheck! Are you kidding me? Bills and living expenses don’t go on hold just because you’re chasing your dreams. Often, people will try to take on a second paid job to cover their bills because they believe the internship with open more doors down the road. But, all of this can lead to burnout. Trust me, I did something similar pre-Wells Fargo when I tried to take on a part-time job, an internship, and a full course load. I wore myself out.

2. Class Division: This one should be obvious. Unpaid internships create and reveal an explicit division between students of means and those without. At UW-Madison, I had access to dozens of what could have been enjoyable, enlightening internships, promising networking opportunities, and great developmental opportunities, but they didn’t pay and thus, I couldn’t accept them. Meanwhile, my more privileged classmates applied and worked these internships without in large part because their livelihood and support came from their parents and socioeconomic background.

Now, I am not saying internships should come with the same full salary and benefits as a full-time position. I appreciate the value many internships provide and yes, there are companies who offer paid internships. What I’m saying is that many companies fail to realize how paid internships can level the playing field among more privileged and less privileged groups, including students of color, first-generation students, and even working parents.


Nowadays, many companies are on the “diversity and inclusion” wagon (perhaps another article to come on that) but still don’t fully commit to this project. For these multi-million or even billion-dollar companies, it would be a slight adjustment, to, you know, PAY interns. This slight change could make a significant difference in diversifying talent pools and improving the quality of life for its interns.

Nearly ten years have passed since my time at Wells Fargo and while I still have fond memories of my experience, I also think “how would my career be different without it?”

In short, “Show me the money!”

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©2020 by Blackness and the Workplace.