Northwestern students reflect on unpaid summer internships, options for aid


Alec Carroll/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern Career Advancement’s SIGP gives students funding to participate in unpaid internships. Unpaid opportunities have recently come under fire for catering to privileged students who can afford to go through a summer without earning money.

Neya Thanikachalam, Reporter

It was only in May 2018 that Medill senior Matthew McHugh finalized his summer internship at Bay Area KRON 4 News. “This kind of came together at the last minute,” McHugh said.

The internship required him come in alternate days of the week, so McHugh decided to get a part-time job over the summer, working as a DoorDash food deliverer on the days he wasn’t interning.

McHugh said the part-time job was his only source of income. His internship was unpaid.

Unpaid internships have recently come under fire for catering to privileged students who can afford to go through a summer without earning money. Eleni Vartelas, assistant director of employer strategy at Northwestern Career Advancement, said a solution for returning undergraduate students with unpaid internships and financial need is the University’s Summer Internship Grant Program — a funding opportunity just for that.

“It’s getting harder and harder for certain areas to fund students,” Vartelas said. “It’s extremely important to have something for students who support themselves.”

Vartelas emphasized that many students who receive SIGP grants also receive financial aid from Northwestern.

“These are students that, without SIGP, a lot of times would have to turn down the opportunity for an unpaid internship, or in some cases, take something else on, and they’re just overworking themselves,” Vartelas said.

McCormick freshman Shani Katz had an unpaid internship over the summer where she did marketing work for a local test-prep company in Connecticut. While Katz didn’t have any financial difficulties herself, she said she understands internships can teach students valuable lessons.

“I learned that I don’t like marketing,” Katz said. “But more importantly, that everything comes with a lot of effort and a lot of patience.”

Companies sometimes give their former interns preference for competitive positions in the future. Interns also gain opportunities to network with professionals, providing significant advantages during their job search.

Various organizations and governmental agencies such as the U.S. Senate have made efforts to pay interns, so that students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds can participate in unpaid programs.

“The station I was at was in a financial struggle, but a lot of big companies can probably afford to pay their interns something,” McHugh said. “A stipend or a grant, or something for the work that they do.”

Vartelas said both NCA and many employers have student interns’ well-being in mind and strive to make sure they have sufficient aid.

SIGP ensures all students can get an internship they want, she added, not one they need, by leveling the playing field for students of all backgrounds.

“It’s really hard for a student to take (an internship) on if they have financial need,” Vartelas said. “And that’s why SIGP exists.”

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