Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

Working for free helped the author land a job at Essence and put her on the path to her dream job.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — A debate is raging right now about internships, the lifeblood of many small businesses, and also a lifeline for many young people trying to break into difficult-to-access industries. A big question being contemplated in courtrooms as well as in the court of public opinion concerns the legality and fairness of countless unpaid internships that swell to astronomical numbers in the summer months.

I get it. Why should someone work for free? That’s a fair question that is being litigated in the courts right now. Cases have been brought by interns against a number of media companies, including the production company for Charlie Rose (where there was a settlement), Hearst Corp.’s Harper’s Bazaar (where there was a decision in favor of the interns that was recently thrown out) and Condé Nast’s W Magazine (which is pending). Also, interns who worked on the set of the blockbuster film Black Swan recently successfully sued Fox Searchlight Studios for wages. And so there is uncertainty about the future of internships as many have previously known them.   

I will watch with interest to see what happens. I am 100 percent sure that if I had not had the two unpaid internships that I designed for myself right after I graduated from college, I would not be where I am today.

When I was in school, as an English major, internships did not exist. You were supposed to get your B.A. and immediately go to grad school. That was not my preference. But because I had not exactly prepared myself for the career I had envisioned — some employable role in the space of fashion and writing — I was pretty much stuck without a real chance of getting to my goal. (I had worked both as a model and as a salesperson in clothing stores. Oh yeah, and I had written about fashion for the school newspaper, but those credits didn’t quite cut it.)

My scenario is ironic, considering that I was a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude college graduate. Without proof of my ability through viable work, however, those credentials added up to just about nothing. Sadly, having a good education is not enough.

My first official job after graduating from Howard University was on Capitol Hill, thanks to my boyfriend, who hooked me up. I hated it. I was essentially a secretary, and I had to wear a blue suit, white shirt and blue bow tie — the standard back in 1983. Because I had been a model throughout my high school and college years, I was offended by the wardrobe requirements, matched only by my disdain for work that my naive mind thought was beneath me.

Trying my best to figure out how to get out and pursue my dream of writing about fashion, I concocted a plan: to convince newspapers in Washington, D.C., to let me write fashion columns for them — for free. That way I could publish a year’s worth of columns and then move to New York City and begin my real career.

It worked, and two small free newspapers let me write weekly columns for them. This was before computers, so not only did I have to write and edit the columns, but I also had to deliver them. I was barely making a real salary, so it was expensive for me to execute my tasks, but I did it.

A year later, armed with a year’s worth of published clips, I was offered two jobs. I took a position at Essence magazine, in the lifestyle department. And so my career began. I never forgot those two unpaid internships, either. They helped me prove what I already knew: that I could write well about a topic that I loved.