Controversy of unpaid internships

By Rebecca Otis, Suzie Kazar, Carter Thompson

Package Introduction:

Unpaid internships are in the news recently, with newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing that she will be paying her congressional interns. Even still, unpaid internships are on the rise. Suzie Kazar has the story.


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As of 2016, over half of graduating college students took part in at least one internship during their college careers. However, only half of those students were paid.

Unpaid internships are controversial. Many see them as catering to upper-class, wealthy and white students who can afford to work without payment.

Some students are forced to turn down great opportunities because they’re unpaid. Zahra Farahbakhsh, a 2018 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had to turn down an unpaid position at a research lab that could’ve helped her professional development in the genetics field. While she now has a full-time job, she said that unpaid internships favor students who can afford to not be paid for their work.


“And when you’re applying to a job they expect you to already have experience and, I mean, there’s a very clear distinction between who’s able to have that experience.”

Outcue: … have that experience.”

Runs: 08

William Kerwin, a senior at Wisconsin, had a similar experience last summer. Between a paid summer internship in Chicago and an unpaid government internship in Washington, D.C., he chose the paid internship. However, even without the paid internship offer, he’s not sure he would have gone to D.C.


“I probably would have just worked in Madison for the summer and then had no internship altogether.”

Outcue: … internship altogether.”

Runs: 04.5

Not having an internship makes many college students feel disadvantaged when applying to entry-level jobs after graduation. Farahbakhsh recalled feeling that way when looking at her resume.


“My research lab did a lot of, like, important experiments, over that summer. I would have probably been able to be on a lot more papers and that would have made my application, like, look a lot better.”

Outcue: … look a lot better.”

Runs: 09

Even with an unpaid internship, the fact that they’re not being compensated is enough for some interns to feel like they’re getting less out of the experience. Zach Klein, a senior at Wisconsin, worked for the Tony Evers campaign last fall as an unpaid intern.

“Within the capacity of my internship, had I been paid, I just would have maybe taken it a little more seriously and felt a little bit more inclined to go the extra mile, or, um, like go out of my way to do certain things.”

Outcue: … certain things.”

Runs: 13.5

Although most wish to be paid for their work, there is still value in an unpaid internship in gaining work experience and sometimes course credit.

Altogether, the decision to pay interns is getting more popular, even as unpaid internships continue to grow in number.

I’m Suzie Kazar, reporting.



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