Can’t Afford to Work for Free: How Low-Income Students Can Engage in Meaningful Experiences

Women working in a groupA couple of weeks ago, David Hyde, a United Nations (UN) intern from New Zealand, received worldwide media attention when he resorted to living in a tent in order to maintain his unpaid internship in the highly expensive city of Geneva, Switzerland. Hyde’s situation is not uncommon – thousands of college students apply to unpaid internships in cities far away from home in hopes of building their resume and developing powerful connections. Though Hyde aimed to get more organizations to evaluate if their unpaid internship programs are ethical, I do not foresee a significant number of organizations making a transition to paid internships any time soon. Many non-profits, government organizations, and small businesses are unable to pay their interns due to lack of funding and tight budgets. This often means that if students want experience, they must continue to sacrifice, sometimes as much as Hyde did in Geneva.

This growing idea that college students need to obtain at least one internship is causing lower income students, who commonly give up unpaid internship offers for unskilled jobs unrelated to their major, to feel lost and behind. Instead of imposing this idea, lower income students can still take advantage of the plethora of both unpaid and paid opportunities if they intelligently restructure their schedules and use all of their college resources.

So how can lower income students gain the vital internship experience to get an entry-level job?

First, it is important to recognize that you do not need to work at a prestigious organization, such as a Fortune 500 company or an international non-profit, and in a large city, such as Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, to get meaningful experiences and strong connections. You can utilize the resources offered by your college and work with local organizations that are more flexible. Even if you live in an area that lacks opportunity, you can still find online internships or get selected for expense-paid fellowships.

Internships for credit or take “experiential learning classes”

Most colleges give course credit for internships, giving students the opportunity to replace traditional lecture courses with real world experiences. You should consider replacing a class that is not required with an internship for credit. This allows you to receive college credit – even possibly towards your major – while gaining significant experience. Established college internship programs tend to have more participants, making carpooling with fellow students easier. You can also find an internship that is either walking distance or on a bus route so that you don’t have to pay much – or at all – for transportation. This Fall, I will receive academic credit towards my major by working as an urban development intern in Downtown Hartford, which is only one free bus ride from Trinity College.

Last semester, I took Urban Studies 301: Community Development Strategies, part of Trinity College’s “Community Learning Initiative (CLI)” program. Community Learning Initiative classes include a community project or externship experience related to the topic of the course. As part of my CLI project, I worked with the City of Hartford Zoning Commissioner to examine neighborhoods that would be affected by her transit oriented development policy. Though I was not required to spend as much time on the project as a part-time internship, I was able to connect with the most influential government officials in the city, present at a public zoning meeting, and work on a project related to the field I intended to work in.

Maximize college resources

While working at a campus job related to your field, you can expand your skills while connecting with students and staff who are already working in or interested in the same career field as you. For example, if you’re interested in working in tech, you should consider working a PAID tech support position at the college IT Department.

Students of any major should consider becoming a teaching assistant or peer tutor for a core class, enabling them to bond with their professors and students interested in the major.

If you are interested in an opportunity that doesn’t exactly exist or is too specific, you can also develop an independent study for credit where you conduct your own research and build a product or write a 20+ paper based on your findings. Many science and public policy students at my college work as research assistants to their professors, gathering and analyzing data and taking part in the process of publishing a research paper.

You should visit your career advising services center often, taking advantage of any short-term externships that can give you wider exposure to the fields you’re interested in, but do not exhaust you of your finances. Last semester,, I shadowed at a small law firm in Hartford  through the Career Development Center Externship Program and was able to observe a deposition and pre-trial. Though I was only at the law firm for two days, I discussed my extraordinary experience in a successful interview for an internship position at the New York State Attorney General Office.

Virtual internships/volunteering

Virtual internships are highly cost-effective and flexible, because you can work without traveling away from home and usually can schedule to complete your tasks on your own time. Many organizations are implementing virtual internship programs – the U.S. Department of State Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) offers 330+ internships with top U.S. government agencies. The UN’s Online Volunteering Service posts virtual volunteer opportunities, giving you the opportunity to work with non-profits abroad without paying for transportation and housing costs and on projects that otherwise aren’t available in your immediate community.

Since 2014, I have worked as a technology coordinator for Americans for Informed Democracy (now AMP Global Youth), developing an entire WordPress site for the non-profit. From the experience, I worked closely with the volunteer management coordinator who has a Master of Public Administration from Princeton, 20+ college and graduate students in other volunteer teams, and sought advice from three experienced web developers.


In addition to a paid job, physically volunteer for only a couple hours each week

There are many non-profits who are exhilarated to receive any help – not just interns who can devote 30+ hours each week. You can develop a schedule to work anywhere from 2-5 hours week which will allow you to have a 30+ hour paid job unrelated to your major.

While in high school, I worked as a genealogy researcher at the local historical society for two hours a week. Though I did not necessarily aspire to become a historical or museum archivist in the future, I developed critical research skills that my coursework would never have been able to give me.

Paid Internship/Fellowship Programs

Though unpaid internships are the norm, paid internships do exist. They are usually part of national or regional “fellowship programs” that will usually cover your flight, housing, meals, and personal expenses to temporarily relocate to the major city where the internship is held. Summer research experiences for undergraduates (REU), Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and IRTS Foundation Summer Fellowship are among the most competitive expense-paid internship programs.

Low income students should not feel that they are at a complete disadvantage because they relocate to expensive major cities to work in top name internships. Spending enormous amounts of money in order to have an unpaid internship is never an investment. Instead, it is just a feature of the flawed society that we live in – one that obsesses over credentialing and prestige. You, as a low to middle class income student, can still take advantage of the plethora of opportunities by using your college and the Internet as a platform for your success. Being resourceful, intelligently structuring your time at college, and believing that you gain useful experiences despite your financial situation will help you eliminate the career development gap between lower income and rich students.

Jennifer Tran is co-leader of The Collegiate Blog Mentoring Program. She is currently a junior at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and majors in Urban Studies with minors in Community Action and Models and Data.