Between a rock and a hard place: gaining “experience”


When first assigned this topic exploring internships I was originally going to share my experience as a policy and communications intern with U.N. humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme. For me, it is what I retrospectively refer to as a ‘turning point’ in my life. I met amazing mentors and lifelong friends, and I gained an insightful introduction to humanitarian response and development work and the skills to get me started.

Whilst there is a perception that an elusive U.N. internship is prestigious in a number of varying ways, which I believe is dependent on the perceiver’s value hierarchy, it is also thought of to be exclusive. It would be presumed that the leaders in human rights and equality would practice what they preach, however for many students, the reinforced system of unpaid internships for experience and/or credit points by the U.N. is financially unattainable.

I was fortunate that my placement with WFP is one of the few agencies that pay interns a monthly stipend. What this translates into real terms is that each month I could use the money to either cover my rent, or pay for all of my other living expenses. This meant I needed to be armed with a decent chunk of savings, and some financially-able supportive parents.

All in all it costs to intern at the U.N. and to contribute to ‘the fight against hunger’. Was it worth it though?

Heck yes.

But thinking beyond myself, what does this mean for the sector and the type of professionals that will be able to work in it. It’s often a hard pill to swallow because it can feel as though I must justify why my lottery ticket for life should not be a part of what defines me as a person, but I recognise that I am privileged. I come from Australia, a politically stable (despite past years backroom dealings) and wealthy country. I also live in what is ranked as the most liveable city in the world, Melbourne. Furthermore, my parents were able to realise their efforts and be fortunate to reap the results of their hard work by being able to send my siblings and I to a private school.

I represent a common face at the U.N., and it is the type of face that despite all of the other aspects that I might bring to the table is exclusive to other deserving, intelligent, and passionate students who would contribute much to our ambitious shared goals of alleviating poverty and promoting equality.

So where is the root of this issue? It’s hard to define, as there are various aspects which must be considered.

Supporting academic learning with practical learning is important in ensuring students are ready for the professional world. How students can gain this experience is often by volunteering or interning.

The difference between volunteering and interning can be akin to splitting hairs, and can be dependent on the provider. With an internship however, there is a growing requirement that these roles provide relevant tasks that will help students to practice and develop skills appropriate to their course. This requirement leads to the question that if one is interning for skills development, and not volunteering for altruistic reasons, how should one be compensated? Organisations would argue that compensation is through the opportunities that interning with them provides; networking, experiences, skills etc, the resume padders.

In a sector like international development and humanitarian assistance where field and international experience is a criteria, this means that interns often must give to the role more than they may equivalently take away. Most of all, like many of the criticisms of the international volunteering practices, the outcome of unpaid internships is a reinforcement of power hierarchies that favour those from developed countries.

Following global headlines about a 22-year-old intern from New Zealand living in a tent in Geneva because he couldn’t afford to pay rent, direction of fault was indicated by UN officials stating that responsibility lay with the General Assembly to reverse the rules regarding the non-payment of interns. As many of us are familiar with, seeing such changes made through the G.A. will be glacial.

However, organisations such as the U.N. are not the only players with influence on this issue. Universities, who are increasingly competing to prove their global credentials encourage the uptake of internships, offering course credit for such experiences. There is are two sides to this particular coin. Many internships, from the U.N. or others require that applicants either be attending or have recently graduated from a university degree, and/or must be able to receive credit.

Universities benefit from students successfully undertaking such placements as they can promote their relevance and connection to the job marketplace to prospective students. They also benefit from the fees they charge students for a course they do not even teach.

If internships are often limited to those attending, or have recently attended university, and such placements can receive course credit, and universities have a vested interest in students undertaking such experiences; then arguably they should also help address the issues of inequality. Yes, many offer generous scholarships and grants, which go a long way in covering the cost of undertaking an internship, however they do not often cover the additional costs of the course fee.

This may be a whole other kettle of fish from a university standpoint, and it can be argued that students would be paying that fee regardless if its an internship unit or otherwise.

Although universities are helping to address issues of accessibility through financial support, and should be highlighted, grants and scholarships offered are often not applicable or attainable to all students undertaking an internship. In some cases, support is limited to citizens from where the university is based. Furthermore, not every university is in a position to provide significant support to each student. As such, how much of the burden should be placed with universities?

Perhaps, at the end of the day the argument comes back to the added value that interns do provide, and “a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay”. Everyone learns whilst on the job, an intern no more, and no less.

There’s a simple solution, though it may be lengthy to achieve through the General Assembly, and that’s to recognise the value of interns with compensation. Further, justifying unpaid internships based on students benefiting by receiving course credit, well we students pay for that too.

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