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Interning or Indentured?

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In today’s economy, the internship is a symbiotic and strings-free relationship. So if we’re only dating, why do schools charge for the privilege?

By Elizabeth Cronin

While the reality of interning next year may interfere with plans for finally obtaining a Ramen-free diet and an actual lease (not with your parents), it isn’t like we weren’t warned. Internships have become synonymous with the word unpaid. Discussed last April in both the Washington Times article, “Is Use of Interns Abuse of Labor?” and Ross Perlin’s New York Times op-ed, “Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges,” it’s clear that the practice of employers hiring unpaid student interns while schools charge tuition for the privilege is garnering critical attention. Though many students may be complacent about the practice, are schools to blame for this potentially exploitative relationship?

“[The schools] should stop charging students to work without pay — and ensure that the currency of academic credit, already cheapened by internships, doesn’t lose all its value,” argues Ross Perlin. This may not be an issue for students with unlimited parental support. But for students like Abraham Ritchie, whose internship comes with a heavy course load and a part-time job at the Art Institute, it’s grounds for a serious reappraisal of a system seemingly oblivious to the needs of students.

Ritchie, a New Arts Journalism student at SAIC graduating this May, is an intern at Bad at Sports (a blog and weekly podcast series about contemporary art). “In art school, the internship is seen as ‘good experience,’ and payment is optional,” Ritchie said. “This is silly. Students have to live in the real world just like everyone else. We have rents to pay, we need to eat and we need jobs.”

Sarah Taylor, a first-year New Arts Journalism student, agrees — and as a nearly five-year internship veteran, she admits she’s torn. “On one hand, I agree with the internship requirement. It truly teaches you outside of the program and I think it should be mandatory. That being said, requiring us to pay tuition money to essentially work for free seems a little suspect.”

To successfully meet the requirements of their programs, New Arts Journalism (MANAJ) students must complete six internship credits over two semesters, and Arts Administration (MAAAP) students must complete three. Those three credits equal 210 hours of work per semester, which breaks down to two eight-hour shifts a week — but it’s not the requirement most students are questioning. It’s the price tag.

“For the money we spend [$7,548 over two semesters], there should be a significant return,” adds Ritchie. “If the internships that the school generates aren’t creating valuable and marketable work experience, or leading directly to a job after graduation, then the students will start to question the return on their mandatory investment [tuition]. I think that they are widely starting to do so, which isn’t to say that’s good or bad, it just seems to be the case.”

Kelly Reaves, a 2010 MANAJ graduate who interned at Gapers Block (a web-based guide to art events in Chicago) explained, “I’m irritated with the school system, not the employers. I arranged my own internship. I didn’t need to do it through the school. But then again, a lot of places won’t hire interns who aren’t students because they’re skeptical about your motivation or dedication if you’re not paying for it, and you have nothing tangible to lose from not showing up.”

Vicki Engonopoulos is the Director of the Cooperative Education Internship Program (Co-op) at SAIC, which counsels students through the internship process and works with employers to post up to 700 internships per semester (including BFA, MA & MFA opportunities). According to Engonopoulos, the internship should be looked at “like a course, a learning experience, like you’re going to a different kind of classroom.”

Students can begin their internship search by either calling the office to schedule an appointment with one of the eight full-time faculty advisers, or they can search for opportunities online using SAIC Launch. Once the employer has been vetted and the student has been placed, the student’s faculty adviser continues to monitor his or her progress with regular site visits, as well as more informal meetings with the student off-site. Engonopoulos states the program’s goal is to make sure that “employers meet their criteria so students have a good experience.”

Reaves acknowledges her internship has been instrumental to her professional development and advises students to “do the work well. Be enthusiastic. The only thing worse than having to pay to do an internship through the Co-op program is paying to do an internship through the Co-op program, and then doing a half-assed job and not learning anything. Then you’re really throwing your money away.”

SAIC’s Jim Yood, Professor of Art History and Director of the New Arts Journalism Program, explained that arts journalism is a profession as well as an intellectual discipline. The hours spent outside the classroom are meant to provide students with the professional training necessary to be competitive. When asked about the concern some MANAJ students had expressed about the Co-op program’s tuition policy, Yood replied, “We expect people who employ our students as interns to provide them with intriguing work to do. The aim is not simply to provide non-profits and corporations with unpaid labor, but to provide our students with professional experience.”

Editor and publisher Andrew Huff of Gapers Block has employed two MANAJ interns over the years, and says that he’s been “very happy with their abilities and enthusiasm for the work.” The staff at Gapers Block consists solely of volunteers, so it would be a “little odd to pay interns in our case,” says Huff. Although he wasn’t aware that tuition dollars were being applied to help fund the program, and concludes it does seem a “little unfair,” he imagines that it must be tied in with the administrative time spent overseeing the program.

Reaves described her internship at Gapers Block as a “great experience” with a full-time editorial position waiting for her at the end of her run (although pay still remains an issue). However, she also shared that her continued education has translated into paying thousands of dollars for a master’s degree which has left her with “less skills and experience than my boyfriend, who is also in the arts field, and who didn’t graduate from college. Now I’m finding myself having to choose between continuing to work there during the day for pennies, going to work in a bar at night for money, or taking a boring clerical job instead of having my nights free. SAIC’s a great school — it teaches you to think. But it doesn’t teach you how to make money.”

Should it? Art schools like SAIC aren’t exactly in the business of grooming graduate students to secure high-paying jobs after graduation — its focus is art, not business. And the internship experience is meant to reflect that philosophy. But how do you translate “experience” into “practical” and turn it into “profitable?” Furthermore, how do you manage to stay financially afloat while making it happen? Should SAIC charge students for experience gained outside the classroom?

A good internship may turn out to be a great experience, but unfortunately, I don’t think my landlord will care.

One Response to Interning or Indentured?

  1. Kevin says:

    Great illustration.
    Good coverage.

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