Unpaid internships must have defined objectives

Amanda Hurst|Staff Designer

After participating in Disney college internship student highlights benefits, pitfalls of programs without pay

Low-paying internships can provide students with invaluable experience and connections, but only if students can afford the opportunity.
In the spring of 2014, I completed a paid internship with The Walt Disney Company, known as the Disney College Program. I spent a semester making magic as a custodian in Epcot, one of the Walt Disney World theme parks. I made minimum wage.
I also lived on Disney property, had the opportunity to take classes through the Disney Education Office and enjoyed the benefits of free park admission. I loved every minute of it — even the minutes I spent cleaning restrooms. The classes I chose to take helped me connect with professionals in the industry, and my status as an alumna gives me a leg up when I apply for the highly coveted Disney Professional Internships. I was also granted 12 hours of internship credit for completing the program.
Everything about my experience was positive, despite the paltry level of my pay. But lately, I have realized that this isn’t the case for everyone.
Where I was overjoyed at receiving a full semester’s worth of hours for the program, others would have been in a jam. My 12 hours of credit would have cost me $5,432 without my scholarship. In Walt Disney World, I had an average weekly pay of about $125. Without my scholarship, it would have been impossible for me to cover the cost of my credits even if I saved every penny I made at my internship. Not everyone has a scholarship to fall back on.
Many of my friends opted to receive no credit, rather than use financial aid or loans to cover the cost of school credits. Unfortunately, receiving few to no credits can put students behind in their degree plans. In some cases, participating in the program without receiving credit requires students to formally reapply to their college when the program ends.
That’s a lot to consider when you apply for an internship. Scholarships could be affected, as could financial aid. Some students try to remain enrolled and on track by taking a full online course load, but it’s incredibly difficult to balance that with the unpredictable schedule of a college internship program.
It seems to me that the academic success of a college program is dependent on the ability of participants to reap the networking benefits of an internship while minimizing the potentially negative impact on their college track. The same is true for other low-paying, high-commitment internships.
I accepted early on that I wasn’t going to really make money. I could accept this because I had parents willing to help me out and a scholarship covered the cost of my credits. For me, this program wasn’t a way to supplement my income. It was a bucket-list dream and a foot in the door toward more applicable, higher-paying Disney internships in the future.
The benefit of that foot in the door is very real. According to a spring 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE, 67 percent of students who completed a paid internship were offered a job prior to graduation, compared to 37 percent of unpaid student interns and 35.2 percent of students with no internship experience.
In a more recent NACE study, 61 percent of graduating seniors had an internship or co-op experience, but 46.5 percent of those internships were unpaid.
All things considered, I would participate in the Disney College Program again in a heartbeat. I would not, however, recommend it blindly. When looking at internship opportunities, honestly evaluate the potential for debt against the potential for future employment within the industry. Unpaid internships rarely pay off, and while low paying internships can carry many benefits, those benefits significantly diminish if the internship negatively affects educational goals. At the end of the day, these programs were designed to fill a need, and it’s up to participants to turn them into valuable experience.
Students can get a lot out of low-paying internships, but only if they are willing and able to put a lot into them.

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