For unpaid interns, a financial lift

When companies can't promise a paycheck, some colleges step in with stipends to help students survive.

Students at elite private colleges often spend well over $100,000 for an education that's supposed to open doors to opportunity. But to make sure doors into competitive fields swing wide, a growing number of schools are finding they need to oil the hinges by giving cash stipends to students who otherwise might not sign up for all-important unpaid internships.

College-sponsored stipends, administrators say, give soon-to-be graduates a running start into job markets where the value of internship experience - in many cases unpaid - continues to climb. Yet whether students enjoy substantial advantages when their colleges act as rich uncles is a matter of some debate.

As the autumn season of applying for internships hits high gear, career counselors say they see an ongoing need for such stipends among all but the wealthiest students.

"For students who need to make money, this provides an opportunity for them to intern without personal expense," says Ron Gallagher, assistant director of the Office of Career Counseling at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. This past summer, 103 stipends worth $2,640 each went to Williams students who did unpaid internships in government and nonprofit settings.

"It would give them a leg up on the competition if they graduated and sought jobs in those fields.... And the skills learned are transferable if they wanted to work for Fox News or NBC, or write for the Boston Globe."

Other campuses have the same idea. Stipends for unpaid internships have emerged over the past 10 years to the point that more than a dozen institutions now offer them. Smith College in Northampton, Mass., for instance, offers every student a $2,000 stipend for use anytime before graduation. At Connecticut College, 65 percent of the junior class (292 students) got $3,000 to use during unpaid internships last summer. Wellesley College in Massachusetts has expanded the reach of its stipend program from 60 students in 2000 to 300 in 2005. Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. kicked off its own stipend program this past summer.

Added opportunities

As stipends cover costs of food, housing, and incidentals, some worry the fields of communications, nonprofits, and government could effectively become limited to those who can either forgo a summer paycheck or expect to get one from their school.

"It's one of the many reasons that moms and dads are willing to try to spend what it costs [for a private college]. It pays off in the long run on what comes out the other end" in terms of work, says Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College. "But the assumption that [through this system] the rich get richer and the poor get left behind is absolutely right."

Others, however, dispute the notion that those without stipends necessarily find fewer opportunities, even in competitive settings.

"These unpaid internships are certainly more difficult [to take] if you come from modest means, but it shouldn't box people out," says Mark Oldman, co-founder and co-president of Vault Inc., a publisher of career-building resources in New York City. "If you're scrappy, you can make an unpaid internship work.... If you want to break into that plum television company, you just have to have the fortitude to work two jobs."

Mr. Oldman says the premium placed on internship experience is "at an all-time high," evidenced in part by a recent Vault survey indicating that 88 percent of graduating seniors had done one. Pay tends to accompany those in unglamorous industries, he says, such as accounting or chemical production. But in many settings that attract lots of applications from recent graduates, Mr. Oldman says unpaid internships remain "the only way in" for those without strong connections to an organization.

Sometimes, dollars make a difference

How much the stipends help varies from one student to the next. Ryan Davis, a 2002 graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, depended on financial aid and maximized savings each summer by going home to Saco, Maine, where he worked various retail jobs. But he says even if he hadn't received a stipend for almost $1,000, he would have paid his own way to do a January news reporting internship at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.

"I would have just been a little more broke for the next few months," he laughs. He says the four-week experience enabled him to generate essential "clips" of published stories he would need to land his current job as a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass.

For Colby 2001 graduate Jennifer Carlson, however, the stipend played a key role. After spending summers working at temp agencies to afford books for the next year, the stipend of nearly $1,000 enabled her to fly to Phoenix and head-up publicity for a citywide volunteering day. The experience opened the door to a job in public relations.

"It was crucial for me to get that on my résumé," says Ms. Carlson, now a senior account executive at the VIA Group in Portland, Maine. "That would not have been possible without the stipend."

Meanwhile at most colleges, where stipends remain a pipe dream, students are either forgoing unpaid opportunities or getting creative. At Ohio State University, for instance, students limit their unpaid hours to 10 per week in order to save time for earning money, says spokesperson Amy Murray. And when that's not enough, she says, some configure their work-study duties in such a way as to gain some sort of valuable on-the-job experience.

"They can make it act as an internship," Ms. Murray says. "So that's what some of them do."

How to turn an internship into a success: a proactive approach

Fall is the high season for college students to apply for internships, on-the-job experiences that often cut a path to job offers upon graduation. But interns will neither learn much nor impress their supervisors unless they adopt an approach far more proactive than the one that's routinely expected on campus, according to college career counselors.

"The [educational] system all their lives has been to react" to a teacher, says Cynthia Parker, director of the Office of Career Services at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "And so why wouldn't they go to the internship and say, 'Here I am. I'm bright and shiny. I can do anything you ask. And so, ask.' But sometimes that means supervisors say, 'OK, I have a lot of xeroxing for you to do.' "

Interns benefit far more, Ms. Parker says, when they're clear about what they want to learn and discuss those goals at the outset with a supervisor. Those in charge are often impressed to see that "This isn't somebody just along for the ride. This is an active participant."

Here's her checklist for a successful internship:

• Set goals. Brainstorming with a trusted faculty member or campus adviser can help a student identify skills to learn, people to meet, or departments to observe.

• Use campus resources. Many schools have a career services office to assist with finding internships in a particular field, résumé writing, or interviewing skills.

• Sign a learning agreement with the internship supervisor. When both sides agree on goals at the outset, chances of satisfaction all around are much improved. Interns should initiate such an agreement if necessary.

• Be professional. Observe how employees dress and talk, and try to fit into the culture.

• Review goals periodically. Revise in consultation with supervisor if necessary.

• Keep a journal. A record of thoughts, likes, and dislikes could be valuable in the future.

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