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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Unpaid internships involve opportunities, drawbacks

Graduation is little more than two weeks away, and students at the University of Wisconsin are looking for jobs and internships to bolster their resumes. But for many, the internship search comes with the realization that many–if not most–summer internships are unpaid.

The number of students who are accepting unpaid internships is on the rise. Unfortunately, Pamela Garcia-Rivera, assistant director and Employer Relations Team lead at the College of Letters and Science Career Center, said no clear statistics exist on how many college students have taken an unpaid position because neither the Department of Labor nor the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks the number of paid versus unpaid internships. 

Stephanie Kann, a counselor at the College of Letters and Science Career Center, said unpaid internships currently are seen as a training program for college students to better prepare them for their future. Without experience, she said it might be more difficult for a college student or even a college graduate to find a paid job.


Still, despite the lack of pay in comparison to the amount of work expected, some current and former unpaid interns have been able to find value in their work and understand the need for the process.

Kelly Supernaw, a recent UW graduate who majored in psychology with a certificate in criminal justice, said her time as an unpaid intern was an overall positive experience. Supernaw willingly interned during summer of 2012 with FM 100.5 ESPN Madison, which usually offers unpaid internships to ambitious students. She decided to accept their offer because it was the most interesting one she came across, and it was also out of her comfort zone, demonstrating to future employers that she “can take on any kind of job and still perform well”.

Because Supernaw enjoyed her time there, she did not mind that she was not getting paid. 

“It was a lot more fun doing the internship without getting paid because the employers knew how much you were putting in to it and they knew the interns did it because they enjoyed it,” she said.

Similarly, Laura Mizer, promotions director at FM 100.5 ESPN Madison, said that unpaid internships allow employers to determine the best candidates for future permanent employment.

“[An unpaid internship] really brings forward the people who want to be here and grow their knowledge and experience; that’s a positive thing,” she said. “It brings people here who want to work.”

If Supernaw was not able to get an internship, paid or unpaid, she was planning to volunteer. Money was not the main factor for her. Instead, she wanted to take the unpaid internship for the learning experience, as a resume builder and for future references. 

However, Supernaw said the experience was not all positive, pointing to expected downfalls of doing regularly paid work for free.

“There were the days where I didn’t really want to go because I thought ‘Well, I’m not getting paid for this,'” she said.

However, Supernaw said this negative aspect taught her more about work ethic than she might have learned at a job where an immediate return on her time investment was apparent. Overall, she said, unpaid internships allow students to learn how much effort they have to put in for any job to be successful. 

Paying to snag the unpaid internship

While Supernaw said her experiences as an unpaid intern turned out to be incredibly positive – she said she would do it again given the opportunity – not all students have had such luck with the job search. 

UW senior Michaela Gatzow, who is majoring in rehabilitation psychology, is required to take an internship for her major. Her major requires nine credits of internships, which comes out to 360 hours of work, paid or unpaid. Gatzow was not able to find any paid internships, which she said are “rare and definitely not the norm” for her program. 

In order to reach her required hours, she tutors for free at Jefferson Middle School, volunteers at an after school program through Madison Schools and Community Recreation and volunteers at Horizon High School.

While Gatzow’s work goes unpaid, she is still required to dig into her pockets to pay UW more than $1,000 in tuition money for the time she spends volunteering. With three credits of internship work required, Wisconsin residents are forced to spend $2,597.64; non-resident students would pay $6,660.06; and Minnesota residents would pay $3,294.30 for the opportunity to work for free, according to UW Registrar’s records.

“In a way, I think in my program we are all kind of paying because we are paying nine credits of tuition, gas to get out there and also time,” Gatzow said. “Still, I’ve already been able to see how I can learn new skills and implement them to what I’m doing already, so it will definitely make a positive impact. It’s nice in the aspect that I get to move around and do different things where in a paid position, I might just be doing the same thing over and over again”.

A Different Perspective

Brock Poggensee, a UW sophomore majoring in operations and technology management, has a different view of unpaid internships.  

According to Poggensee, he would only take an unpaid internship as a last resort and if a paid position was absolutely not available. 

“Even if an unpaid internship aligns with my major, I usually try to make as much money as possible to finance my education,” he said.

For him, and for many other college students, money plays an important role in deciding which job to take.

“There is an incentive to work harder if I get paid. I would not feel as satisfied if I worked hard and did not get paid,” he said.

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