Balancing an Unpaid Summer Internship

By: Lauren Zelasko, Communications/Digital Strategy Chair

Like most students, finding the perfect summer internship was my main priority this past year. I had high expectations of what my summer would be like working in a big city. After applying to over fifty programs, I realized I wasn’t quite ready to leave my hometown for the entire summer. I wasn’t ready to move to the big city life and needed those last few months soaking up the smiles of my family and all that Buffalove.

With that, I started my application process all over again, applying to a select few programs close to my hometown. I found an agency that seemed like the perfect fit for me, until the words “unpaid” and “for credit” came up.

I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass, and I was right. I’ve spent the past two months working as a communications/account services intern and have loved every second of it. But, I also work as a nanny and a sales associate. I often work 60+ hours a week and don’t have the paycheck to reflect it. I don’t regret my decision, but there are some things I wish I knew before taking an unpaid summer internship.

  1. Apply for grants. There are dozens of programs and organizations that will give students money to help them out with the financial cost of an unpaid internship. Penn State itself has an endowment fund for communications students who’re taking an internship for credit. The more you reach out to and apply to, the more likely you will receive financial support.
  2. One credit is better than no credits. You don’t have to take three credits to get the full experience of your summer internship. Even one credit will allow you to get a feel of the company and learn plenty of valuable lessons. I intern two days a week and have still learned just as much as my peers working full-time.
  3. Talk with everyone. If you’re working in a specific department of an agency or company, don’t be afraid to reach out to people in other areas. Get an idea of what their work is like and how your job works with theirs. Understanding the company as a whole will allow everything to run smoothly. Also, this is a great networking opportunity and you’ll probably stand out as an intern if you just take an hour of your time getting to know everyone.
  4. Don’t over work yourself. As a college student, it may seem like money is the center of your world, and with bills and student loans, it very well may be. However, it is important to remember that summer is a time to enjoy your freedom and lack of responsibilities. For the first month of summer I was working at least two jobs every day — I became burned out and wasn’t ever able to enjoy time with my friends. While it may seem important to save over the summer, don’t forget about the people around you who want to see you too. Your bank account won’t matter nearly as much when you’re focusing on your mental health and your happiness.

An unpaid internship can come with a lot of unexpected value. I have learned more than I could’ve ever expected and the opportunities I’ve been given are simply priceless. As a Public Relations student, don’t pass up on an opportunity just because it’s unpaid – these experiences will allow you to develop a whole new set of skills and expand your boundaries, opening plenty of new doors for the future.

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