Internships Abroad: Unpaid, With a $10,000 Price Tag

This insightful article written be Steven Greenhouse explores the new field of international internships. Internships abroad can be a great experience, but they come at a price, Margaret Reigal writes. Since students often have to pay not only the internship providers, but also their school for the privilege of working at an unpaid internships, as well as the cost of their travel and living, the numbers rack up. The author fears that this exorbitant price tag can give wealthy students an unfair advantage in a system that already privileges them. Yet, most students report that their experiences have been worth the price, and that it was a better experience than a simple study abroad program. Unfortunately, local labour laws almost always forbid companies from paying foreign students, so the situation is unlikely to improve.

Read an excerpt of the article written by STEVEN GREENHOUSE:

Picture this: A summer behind the scenes at the Edinburgh Art Festival, helping set up a show and banquet, managing a guest list and communicating with artists and agents, plus an excursion to London and a tour of a Scotch distillery and 12th-century castle. That was Darius Francis’ internship last summer. He loved it. Who wouldn’t? “Anytime I talk to anyone about this experience, they say, ‘Wow, tell me about that,’ ” said Mr. Francis, a senior majoring in public relations at Eastern Illinois University. The only thing is, his 10 weeks cost more than $16,000, including $7,300 to the program provider, Panrimo, and $6,000 to Eastern Illinois for the nine credit hours earned through the internship. Mr. Francis was able to cobble together some financial help: a $6,000 federal loan and $3,800 in scholarships from the university’s study abroad office, Panrimo and a local nonprofit. His parents paid the rest. Demand for internships abroad has surged as students — and just as important, their parents — grow ever more worried about their job prospects after graduation and seek a foothold in a world that values global experience. “The hottest growth area in the whole international education area” is how Cheryl Matherly, vice provost for global education at the University of Tulsa, describes internships. “It’s a way to really make the international experience more relevant.” There is no good data over time, but according to the Institute of International Education, almost 20,500 Americans participated in for-credit internships in 2012-13, while about 15,000 interned, worked or volunteered abroad for no credit. For students, setting up an internship with an employer thousands of miles away is no easy feat. Seizing an opportunity, hundreds of program providers have jumped into the field, adding numerous bells and whistles and a steep price tag. GoAbroad.com, which offers information on international education, lists some 3,200 internships, usually unpaid, put together by over 700 providers. Most providers are for-profit companies, while some are educational nonprofit organizations. In addition, more and more universities, including Columbia, Georgia Tech, Rice, Yale and the University of Southern California, are arranging internships for their students, in part to keep costs down. UP AND DOWNSIDE Some experts complain that the internships give wealthy students an unfair leg up in the job market. “Expensive overseas internships are yet another way that the internship economy reinforces privilege, making the once unthinkable seem almost normal — people paying thousands of dollars to work,” said Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.” But to many students and parents, even to families like the Francises, for whom the expenditure was a stretch, the benefits — the on-the-job learning and exposure to another culture — justify the cost. In a 2012 survey by the Institute for the International Education of Students, known as I.E.S. Abroad, 84 percent of their alumni said the experience had helped them build job skills; 89 percent reported getting a job within six months of graduation. Emily Merson, co-founder and C.E.O. of Global Experiences, a 13-year-old company that arranges internships in Dublin, London, Shanghai and other cities, argues that internships are more of an equalizer than study-abroad programs. “We’ve seen so many people do internships who would otherwise not study abroad because it’s too expensive,” Ms. Merson said. “A lot of students think, ‘An international internship is a really good idea, and I’m going to make sure I can afford it.’ ” She added: “We’re seeing proportionally far more first-generation college students doing internships abroad than doing study abroad, because it’s such a good strategic choice and such a good return on investment.” She explained where the “tuition” goes: internship placement, which involves one-on-one time with each student; housing, which she says is particularly expensive in London and Sydney, Australia; and visa assistance, orientation, social activities and weekend excursions, among other expenses. Airfare and food are not included. REVIEWS ARE IN Many colleges and universities compile lists of preferred providers, though students often turn to online peer comments for advice. Troy Peden, a founder of GoAbroad, cautions that testimonials are often skewed because of voluntary-response bias. Moreover, internships are particularly hard to review. “A lot of times, the satisfaction ratings for internships are all over the place,” he said. Are they reviewing the provider, who may be organizing only an orientation and a placement, or their boss, or the job itself? “You also have the interns themselves,” he added. “Were they a good intern? Did that impact their experience?” Some students rave; some grumble about being underutilized and not learning enough. Elena Friedberg, a junior majoring in history and French at the University of Michigan, had an eight-week internship at a bridal boutique in Paris arranged by Global Experiences. ...read more