You may know Torrey Smith as that guy who caught that 59-yard pass that helped the Ravens defeat the Broncos (thereby setting the team up for its eventual win in the Super Bowl); but to Rep. Elijah Cummings, Smith is better known as the intern.
Around this time last year, I remember asking my Johns Hopkins students what their summer plans were. As soon as the question left my mouth, I could tell it was a mistake. Apart from the few who had solid gigs as lifeguards or research assistants, most of these bright and dedicated kids were still searching for someone who would let them work for the summer… for free. Once an optional half-step up the career ladder, the unpaid internship has become something of a necessity. According to new research, more than 90 percent of employers think that students should have completed at least a couple internships before graduating. And that, according to Atlantic editor Derek Thompson, is a big problem, because “unpaid internships aren’t morally defensible.”
Yikes. Those are some strong words. But Thompson has the arguments to back it up. First of all, a career track founded on unpaid internships (as is common in politics, research, journalism, and non-profits) hurts low-income students. “These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field. As a result, poorer students are at permanent disadvantage in the summer internship market,” Thompson writes. Even for students who aren’t in precarious economic positions, the unpaid internship is a shaky deal. Employers reap the benefits of bright young minds, but don’t have to offer up any job security, benefits, or actual money. According to the Labor Department’s guidelines, unpaid internships have to satisfy three requirements: they must be more like education than a job; interns can’t work in place of paid employees; and their work must not be of “immediate benefit” to their employer. As Thompson notes, “these rules are flouted more routinely than speed limits.”
Even in toy-making class, college is not all fun and games. It’s just… mostly fun and games. “It’s more of a laid-back class,” said Alicia Kim, a Towson University student taking the Designing Toys class, which is run through the school’s art department. (Kim’s project is a plant-girl toy with interchangeable flower heads.) But toys are big business, too, and the class takes that into consideration as well. In lieu of a final exam, students present a prototype and a storyboard to toy-giant Hasbro (My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Monopoly, Playskool…), hoping to win a summer internship at the company’s Rhode Island headquarters.
When an anonymous donor approached the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Concern (CSC) with a proposal for a summer program that would fund students to work with local non-profits during summer months, no one was quite sure what to expect.
There is, after all, the (not entirely undeserved) Hopkins student stereotype: chained to a library desk, happy in the Hopkins bubble, venturing off campus only once a year to have dinner in the Inner Harbor with their parents. Bill Tiefenwerth, head of the CSC, had met students who were passionate about engaging in the community — but this program would be much more time-consuming and immersive than, say, the school’s annual day of service. Interns would be doing hands-on work measuring Inner Harbor pollution, building composting systems, and organizing after-school programs for disadvantaged youth. These were demanding jobs, often in parts of Baltimore unfamiliar to many students. Would a summer spent in the Baltimore trenches hold any appeal?
Quite a bit, it turns out. From the start, the Johns Hopkins Community Impact Internship program has struck a chord with both students and the wider community, challenging the way that Hopkins students see their city — and perhaps changing the way the university and the community interact.
The first sign of the program’s success came early — in the application phase. The donor set aside funds for 25 summer internship placements (students received $5,000 stipends to help cover the cost of summer housing and living expenses). No one knew whether this was a realistic expectation. “We were wondering how many [applicants] we’d get,” Tiefenwerth remembers. The program’s intensity — and its emphasis on outside-the-classroom learning — would appeal to a particular type of student, ones who “have an intellectual curiosity about how things work, [and wonder] what is this place called Baltimore?” as Tiefenwerth puts it. Turns out, there were more of those at Hopkins than you might expect. Ultimately, 200 undergrads applied for the 25 slots. “When you send out a call for applications hoping to get 25 and you get 200, there’s a sleeping giant out there,” Tiefenwerth notes. The response was so overwhelming that next year’s program will double in size, offering 50 funded summer internships to Hopkins students.
The program seemed almost perfectly tailored to a student like Sylvie McNamara. A rising sophomore majoring in history (“and probably Africana Studies”), McNamara works two jobs during the school year, in addition to her coursework. “I’m paying for school myself, so it wouldn’t be feasible to work for non-profits unless I could get paid,” McNamara says, and then points out that the grassroots social justice organizations she finds compelling tend to operate on shoestring budgets and rely on volunteer labor. But with a Community Impact Internship, McNamara was able to stay in the city for the summer, getting some seriously good work done. (Read the Baltimore Free Farm brag about her efforts here.) Program administrator Abby Neyenhouse matched McNamara with a trio of local groups that share a collaborative, collective ethos: the Free School, the Free Farm, and the Free Store.
Thanks in part to McNamara’s work, the Free Farm launched Hampden’s first Community Composting Program. McNamara helped build the system (“I learned to use power tools!”); set up a series of Free School lectures during Artscape that touched on prison reform, independent media, and hiphop and politics; and helped out with the Free Store’s periodic give-away days. All three groups operate as horizontal collectives (meaning there’s no authority structure in place, and all participants are on an equal playing field) and, McNamara says, “it was interesting to see how that works — and most interesting to see that it worked very well.” Furthermore, her extended engagement with the projects allowed her to connect with the community in a way that, say, a morning spent planting flowers as a part of the school’s President’s Day of Service would not.
It’s no accident that McNamara’s interests and skills lined up nicely with her internship placements. Internship coordinator Abby Neyenhouse interviewed each participant, and took pains to make intentional matches between students and agencies. That was just one aspect of the service-learning model that the CSC adopted to make sure participants were taken care of throughout the program. “We’re not just sending out students and hoping for the best,” Tiefenwerth notes. To that end, all participants took part in an orientation program with representatives from local government and grassroots organizations to give them a broad overview of the city’s challenges and opportunities. During the program, the interns met for a weekly dinner to reflect together on how their understanding of the city (and themselves) was changing. The goal was to have the students “constantly engaged with the process,” Tiefenwerth says — in a way that generic internship programs rarely do.
Both the CSC and the anonymous donor seem to understand that supporting these student interns goes well beyond just giving them money. Participants were guided through the often-befuddling world of Baltimore politics and non-profits, supported by the program (and by one another). When one of the partnering non-profits suddenly moved its headquarters, Neyenhouse helped the intern figure out a viable transportation option. She also made sure that each of the participating organizations — which included the ACLU, the Baltimore City Health Department, Blue Water Baltimore, Parks & People, and the People’s Community Health Center, among others — had a specific project for the intern to tackle, so no one spent six weeks fetching coffee and filing.
Hopkins president Ronald Daniels recently touted the program as an example of the benefits of community engagement: “Our students will get real work experience and an appreciation of the need to look beyond oneself. Often squeezed organizations will get Johns Hopkins talent on loan. And the city will get a few more advocates, maybe even a future mayor, working on its critical issues.” As the University attempts to remake its image in the wake of its floundering East Baltimore biotech project, the Community Impact Internships are one way of connecting the campus to the community on a micro level. Otherwise, you’ve got a situation in which, as McNamara describes it, “[Hopkins students’] brains and labor pretty much stay on campus for four years, and that’s too bad.”
One measure of the program’s success is whether (or if) it continues to make an impact now that the summer is over. Signs are encouraging — Tiefenwerth says that two organizations have offered to hire their interns come fall, and other students are figuring how to work their community involvement in with their academic responsibilities. For her part, McNamara is working with the Free School on a series of classes that would appeal directly to Greenmount West residents. It may be too soon to tell what the program’s impact on the students and the community will be, but as Tiefenwerth notes, “You can’t really develop a model program after one year, but this is as close as you can get.”
When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”
Which, if you think about it, is a little naive. An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.
Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding: I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.
It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.
So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.