After a summer of unpaid remote internships, low-income students reflect on SIGP


Illustration by Meher Yeda

In 2020, NCA awarded hundreds of NU students with SIGP grants in an unprecedented year in which almost every student took on a remote summer opportunity.

Jacquelyne Germain, Assistant Campus Editor

When SESP junior Glory Aliu’s practicum went remote as a result of COVID-19, she was surprised that she had to remain in the Chicago area as a requirement of her unpaid internship at the Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago. 

The SESP practicum, a graduation requirement, can take the form of a summer field-studies internship in Chicago, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.

As Aliu scrambled to sublet an apartment for the summer, she said she did her best to find a place that she could afford with the $3,000 grant she was awarded from Northwestern Career Advancement as part of the Summer Internship Grant Program. 

“I didn’t realize how hard it was… to find something that’s within the budget for rent,” Aliu said. “(I thought) I might have to cut down on food a lot which is not fine because you never really want to be the starving college student.”  

Unpaid internships have been criticized recently for gatekeeping opportunities from low-income students who can’t afford to work without pay while exploiting college students’ labor. 

SIGP seeks to alleviate the financial burdens of unpaid internships. Since 2007, NCA has administered SIGP grants to support undergraduate students taking on unpaid summer opportunities that indicate financial need.

The grants provide $3,000 to students for unpaid internships, summer research positions and other programs to advance professional skills. In 2020, NCA awarded 415 NU students with SIGP grants in an unprecedented year in which almost every student took on a remote summer opportunity, according to the NCA website.

Aliu, a first-generation low-income student, said she eventually sublet from a friend who gave her a “friendship discount,” allowing her to have an affordable place to stay for the summer while partaking in her internship. 

However, she said living in Evanston is expensive and rent alone is enough to use up the majority of the funds from the SIGP grant. She added that the remote nature of the internship helped her budget because she didn’t have to factor in transportation costs.

“(With transportation costs), I probably would have had to dip into my food budget,” she said. 

Junior Ndayikengurukiye, a McCormick junior, said he used the SIGP grant he received last summer for a remote research opportunity. He remained in Evanston for the duration of his internship and said he felt like he was supported by the grant funds.  

Ndayikengurukiye, a low-income student, added that the grant primarily supports essential costs including rent and food. But, like Aliu, he said he didn’t have to worry about commuting due to the remote nature of the research. 

“I didn’t have any transportation (costs) so I feel like it was fine for me,” Ndayikengurukiye said. “But I know if I did that it might get a little hairy.”

He added that unpaid internships often try to take advantage of students and SIGP is a privilege at NU, a well-funded, private university. Based on conversations he’s had with friends at other universities, Ndayikengurukiye said there aren’t similar programs like SIGP at the schools in his home state of Vermont and it’s difficult for these students to find funding for unpaid internships.

Both Ndayikengurukiye and Aliu said they support an increase to the SIGP grant to better support low-income students to account for the cost of living in different locations as well as commuting costs. They said a boost in the grant by even a couple hundred dollars could make a huge difference for students as some internships transition to being in-person again. 

Eleni Vartelas, assistant director for employer strategy at NCA who coordinates SIGP, said it’s a flat grant and NCA intends to keep it as such, but she hopes to see the amount increase in the future with more fundraising. She added that NCA prioritizes low-income students for SIGP by funding those with the greatest financial need first. 

Unpaid internships do hinder who’s able to partake in them, Vartelas said, but she hopes SIGP can level the playing field to some extent by covering essential expenses. 

“(With) that $3,000 stipend, the hope is that it’s going to offset the living costs, so are you able to at least pay the majority of your rent, most of your food, if not all of it,” Vartelas said. “The hope with SIGP is being able to offset the costs, give students that support…. so that they don’t have to completely give up that unpaid internship.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @jacquygermain

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