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Paying Dues in Internships

Career: College students are under pressure to accept even volunteer positions to improve chances at future jobs.

April 22, 2002|ANDREA PERERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For college students hoping to find a job after graduation, completing an internship is virtually becoming a prerequisite.

What happens, though, when students who must work to put themselves through school are offered internships at no pay? And what if some of the more elite internships ask students to relocate for 10 or 20 weeks at a time to such cities as New York or Washington, where rents are exorbitantly high?

With fewer paid internships available, college career counselors and employers say students should cobble together whatever financial resources they can or expect to get left behind.

"There are quite a few ways to get money--if you're willing to do a search and if your school is willing to help," said Dario Bravo, assistant director of internships and study-abroad services at UCLA.

"But I think [students] first have to resolve the fact that they have to do an internship. It's not a choice anymore," he said.

Seventy-seven percent of graduating seniors will have completed at least one internship before finishing college, according to a nationwide survey of 1,000 of last year's graduating students.

Sixty-six percent will have participated in two or more internships.

Vault Inc., a New York-based provider of career information and research, surveyed students from 30 of the nation's top 50 colleges and universities.

"I think the overall trend is that students are increasingly doing internships," said Mark Oldman, the founder of Vault.

Students at more competitive schools find it easier to complete unpaid internships because they are more likely to receive financial support from parents, Oldman said. "But even at non-elite colleges, we found an increasing number of students doing internships."

By the time UCLA senior Jane Chongchit graduates in June with a degree in international development studies and political science, she will have done two internships and lined up a third.

In 2000, she worked for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. In spring 2001 she traveled to Chile to intern with Amnesty International.

This summer, she will intern at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

In between, Chongchit, 22, studied for a semester at the University of Havana in Cuba and worked on the UCLA campus to help pay for her education.

To support herself during her internships--all of them unpaid--she saved money from her work-study job at the campus career center, earned $1,000 in scholarships offered by the University of California system and received grants, such as a $15,000 award from the National Security Education Program.

She saved money on living expenses by staying with a family friend in Virginia while interning in Washington, Chongchit said.

And she even earned money by singing Valentine's Day and Mother's Day telephone greetings for $5 a pop.

Chongchit was fortunate in that the EXPO Internship and Study Abroad Center--part of the UCLA Career and Internship Center--helped her not only find internships but also ways to help fund her stints.

The EXPO center estimates that a summer internship in Washington, for example, can cost a student about $4,500.

It encourages students to raise money and apply for scholarships and grants to help with finances.

But many college career counselors, including those at USC and Cal State Northridge, lament that their schools are unable to provide funding to students themselves.

Instead, they do what they can to help students find the internships and outside scholarships and grants to pay for them.

Finding funds can be tedious, Chongchit said, but the benefits of an internship far outweigh the work put into paying for it.

"In a school with 35,000 students, if you just get straight A's and stay at UCLA with no outside experience, you become a number," she said.

"With these other things--work, internships, volunteering and study abroad--you stand out."

That Chongchit managed to balance so many commitments while in school bodes well for her post-graduation prospects, internship coordinators said.

Eileen Kohan, associate dean and executive director of the Career Planning and Placement Center at USC, said students who successfully juggled classes with outside internships are the same who line up postgraduate jobs.

Sixty percent of USC's class of 2001 who had jobs at graduation had completed some kind of an internship, she said.

"That's pretty dramatic," Kohan said.

Internships offer students a preview of what work in their chosen profession will be like, she said. For some, the experience reinforces their career decision; for others it provides a chance to change their plotted path.

Attila Adam, 34, a senior at Cal State Northridge, worked as a draftsman before returning to school to study cinematography. Last summer, he interned at Sony Studios in Culver City.

Although he often did only light office work or answered telephones, he said he learned a lot just by watching others complete projects in television and movie post-production.

"You see things that you don't learn in school," Adam said.

Even though most entertainment internships are unpaid, completing one is crucial, Adam said, because getting a job without one would be nearly impossible.

At an entertainment industry job fair, Adam said, "Almost every speaker emphasized that, when they look at a resume, they look at how many internships you've done and how good you were at them."

Employers will often pluck prospective hires from the pool of past interns, said Alexandra Morris, who coordinates the post-production internships at Sony.

Adam said he was able to complete his 120-hour unpaid internship because his wife works as a banker and he also earned money doing freelance drafting work from home.

But anyone, regardless of financial burden, should complete an internship before graduation, Adam advised.

"That's the only experience you're getting, with a real job," he said. "Everything else is book knowledge and school projects."

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