An Unpaid Internship Almost Killed Me

My life was reduced to mere existence five days of the week

My alarm rang at 6:00 a.m. Depending on my exhaustion I would either hit snooze or, with the strength of Achilles and Jesus, muster enough energy to sling my legs over the bed. Once feet hit the floor and hands stretched toward the ceiling, mistrust would crawl in my ear, unloading the puzzling question I faced each morning.

“What are you doing here?”

Usually thoughts slipped in one ear and fell out the other as I’d stumble towards the bathroom, but some days they lingered and unpacked in the disorder of my reasoning.

What am I doing here

“Bright lights, big city”? Opportunity to work on “the Hill”? Possibility I’ll meet Obama any second?

But when I worked 9 to 6 at an internship, scooped ice cream from 7 to 12, and slept 2 to 6, those answers became insufficient. My life was reduced to mere existence five days of the week as I made an effort to breathe and eat. Living in Washington D.C. with an unpaid internship didn’t allow me the privilege to rest. I had to constantly be working.

So then why choose to be there when I could be home?

The answer was complicated. I have yet to fully grasp at it myself. A part of it had to do with an ingrained inclination to be obstinate. Growing up in a low income family, opportunity was something that had to be sought. My mother looked for and commuted us to a good school. I fought financial barriers for decent test scores. I researched my way to a reputable college. Persistence and stubbornness were the only fortune to my name. Assets were defined by my intelligence and family. Value was determined by my character. “Nothing is ever handed to you. If you want something, find your own means.” This was natural behavior, a way of living that became so well-established in me that difficulty was almost always expected and challenges were frequently accepted. So when the opportunity of working on Capitol Hill swooped into calloused hands, I grasped the chance with an acute awareness that it would be a struggle.

However, my answer obtained an element that was rooted deeper than mere habit. It mirrored the overused (but truthful) retort, “because I shouldn’t have to.” Why shouldn’t I have been there? I had a right to be there. My entitlement didn’t disappear due to my socioeconomic status or ethnicity. But I became unfortunately conscious to the reality that the ability to exercise that right, to have the privilege to feel entitled, was diminished by my racial and financial background. Today, such opportunity is systematically harder to access for marginalized youth. Hundreds of students are unable to take advantage of the experience gained from unpaid internships due to lack of finances. Young adults are forced to turn down opportunities as they watch peers from economically privileged backgrounds claim their spots. Employers of unpaid internships are enforcing a system that shuts out low income students who are in need of job experience to gain upward social mobility.

When the email arrived with the opening remark, “Congratulations,” I knew that I was at risk of being another victim to this system. I saw myself writing a polite decline of the offer and my job being extended to another. I saw myself saying “maybe next time.” I saw myself wallowing in self-pity. And then I got angry.

I shouldn’t have to be a victim of circumstance. A polite decline would have been the equivalent to the white flag of surrender to a battle with class I thought I had won. Society long ago told me to pull myself up by the bootstraps, and I listened. I pulled myself up everyday. On the way to work. On the way to school. I pulled myself up by dirty laces and frayed socks with all my effort and it got me here: another elimination round.

My frustration and disappointment were paramount. Although some may reduce this experience and opportunity as something trivial, the deprivation of my right to have an equal opportunity to succeed held tremendous importance to me. I dismissed surrender. With hope and annoyance, I fought. I fought my way to DC. I fought my way to the office. I fought my way to 6 a.m. each morning.

Now please don’t be mistaken. This narrative of exceptionalism isn’t one of survival of culture. It is a survival of structure. I am shining a spotlight on a problem that goes heavily disregarded every March when students polish their resumes and cover letters. I don’t regret the decision I made last summer, but I am deeply aware that no one should have had to live that way. We should be advocating for solutions to these issues, not placing the burden of responsibility on victims of circumstance. I don’t want to hear “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” or “it’s just a fact of life,” because these idioms perpetuate and excuse idleness of society. There is no excuse for inaction. Financial support should be available to low-income students so that they never have to wake up with doubt, insecurity, or anxiety. Instead they should wake up with an unapologetic awareness of their rightful claim to succeed.

6:00 a.m.

“What are you doing here?”

I never really knew, but I’m hopeful that somehow, somewhere, someone else has woken up to an answer.