Why Unpaid Internships Shouldn’t be Overlooked

The search for summer internships this year was anything but easy. Last year, I was lucky enough to be hired for the only internship I applied for, and it just so happened that it was my dream position. This year, however, my luck very much shifted. Like many college students, I applied to more positions than I can remember and didn’t hear back from 90% of them. It was extremely frustrating to spend hours and hours researching different organizations, writing countless cover letters, and not knowing when/if there was an end in sight to the search. By the beginning of May, I gave up and became set on working at a fast food restaurant instead to make some extra spending money. It wasn’t the ideal outcome, but I became more content with the idea of it as the days passed by. I was thus very pleasantly surprised when I got an email from the customer service representative at the Pennsylvania Prison Society, explaining that my email somehow went to their spam folder and that they were still looking to fill some internship positions. I very much felt conflicted after reading this email – do I write yet another cover letter that they very likely won’t read? Do I pour a bunch of effort into this application when I’ve already accepted the fact that an internship is likely not in the cards for me this year? Why do I even want an internship so badly – Is it experience that I genuinely want to gain, or is it the toxic work culture that begins building the moment you step into college?  What’s the point of wasting all that time when I could be studying for finals or spending some last-minute quality time with my friends as the semester winds down? At the end of the day though, I decided to bite the bullet and send in that last application. The more I researched the organization and its mission to help the incarcerated and fight for just prison reform, I knew this was a group I would genuinely enjoy volunteering my time to. 

I interviewed with the representative the next day, and the interview went extremely well. When I got hired a few days later, I felt a real sense of peace about the upcoming few months. I knew the once-a-week commute to the Philly office would be a challenge at first, as I had never walked the Philly streets alone before. I also knew I wouldn’t be earning anything, as the organization is a non-profit and cannot offer compensation. Most importantly, I knew that committing to a full-time position for the very first time would require a huge learning curve. Nonetheless, I had a gut feeling that all of those challenges would be worth it, and I was very much correct. 

In just two and a half months, I learned more about the Pennsylvanian prison systems than I could possibly imagine. I learned how hard it was for incarcerated people to find accurate information about the coronavirus. I learned how isolated they were from each other, their families, and the rest of the outside world throughout the pandemic. I learned how difficult it is for people to find out what is happening to their incarcerated loved one, as prison administrators are often uncooperative and hard to get a hold of. I learned that incarcerated people often have to pay a copay for getting medical care, even though many of them have lost their prison jobs during the pandemic. I learned that guards and other prison staff can often be the reason for one’s motivation and rehabilitation, but they can also be contributors to further trauma and the perpetrators of abuse. I learned that my own county has one of the most unjust prisons in the whole state, and as I write this, COVID-19 cases in its facility are going rampant. I learned that sometimes incarcerated people just want someone to talk to, and one of the most rewarding parts of this position was lending a listening ear and answering their letters. I learned that hot water, palatable food, space to breathe, and access to medical care are often unsurprisingly, but disappointingly, hard to come by in any correctional facility. I learned that many women’s prisons are nothing like Orange is the New Black, as our tour of SCI Muncy showed that these women are often friendly and cooperative, and that the superintendents genuinely seem to care about their “residents.” I learned that incarcerated people are often given little help with planning their post-release life, as they are required to have a coming-home plan of action, but not a job, therapy, or healthcare plan of action. I learned that filing a grievance is often like talking to a wall. I learned that though the prison system is really messed up in a lot of ways, there is hope in the potential it exhibits.

On the same note, I learned a ton about what it takes to run a successful nonprofit. When sending out emails and editing the company website, every comma, italics, and hyperlink matters. Little details that you wouldn’t typically check twice need triple-checking, for even though mistakes are a normal part of being a working human, they are often preventable. The learning curve is just that – a learning curve. In the first month, I was so frustrated every time I messed up, but looking back, I learned from each and every mistake, and that’s what should matter. Asking questions is also an absolute must, and it’s 100 times easier to ask a dumb question than face the consequences of making a mistake. Efficiency is key, but quality is often more important than quantity when it comes to providing legitimate help to someone who needs it. On the same note, helping everyone is impossible. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with how many people need assistance, but remembering that you are human and need time to recharge is vital. Collaboration can save you in these moments too, for you don’t have to do every single task alone. Embracing the occasional spreadsheet work is a must – by doing it yourself, it means the people with more experience can have the time and resources to do the bigger work. Yes, the busy work sucks, but it’s essential to the success of the organization. 

The thing I’ll remember the most from this internship experience, however, is the sense of independence that I gained from it. In my previous position, I was given very few responsibilities and trusted with basically nothing. In this position, I got to make website edits, send out emails to subscriber lists, and correspond with inmates – all of which made me feel like I was contributing, even in a small way, to carrying out the organization’s mission. This made me feel like a pretty real employee and contributed to my sense of independence. My commute to Philly became my favorite part of the week, as it let me escape the comfortability of suburbia for a little bit and feel like a tiny ant in a huge city. This likely mundane part of most center city workers’ days was incredibly exciting to me and made me finally understand why people are so drawn to the city atmosphere. The office setting made this feeling even more tangible, as I really got to feel a sense of community and develop myself as a person and employee in interacting with Prison Society staff. 

I do all of this reflection publicly to get across a simple message – don’t shy away from unpaid internships if you can afford it. I’m extremely privileged in the fact that I didn’t absolutely need a source of income this summer. The extra money would have been nice, but I knew that thanks to luck and the hard work of my parents, I didn’t need to choose money over passion and resume building. I won’t always find myself in that position, and I know many people out there will never find themselves in that position, so I’m especially appreciative and grateful that I took the opportunity while I could. I wish more than anything that every internship in the country was paid, but that’s not the world we’re living in right now. For those who are lucky enough to find themselves in the same dilemma as I found myself in earlier this summer, know this: though you might not receive monetary compensation, you hopefully will still learn a shit-ton about the field, how to be a good employee, and who you are as a worker. Speaking from first-hand experience now, these lessons are absolutely worth it. I really believe that all the knowledge I gained will help me in my future career in one way or another, and I’m happy I invested in my future, as cheesy-linkedin-post as that may sound.

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