Opinion: American University’s internship obsession may be doing more harm than good
Internships can place a heavy burden on students who may not have the time to carry it
American University and its students love to talk about their internships, and it’s hard to blame them. Given the rigorous application process and the intense competition, securing one of those coveted “Hillternships” is definitely something to take pride in.
But there’s a success-driven type of culture at AU, one that likely stems from the political nature of D.C. As a result, students feel compelled to take on responsibilities they cannot handle and start measuring their worth based on the amount of internships they have had. This campus-wide obsession with success hides the mental toll it takes on students and ignores the fact that some students simply cannot manage an internship on top of all their other work.
There’s an omnipresent expectation on students to have as many internships as quickly as possible. This starts even before college; I’ve had high school juniors ask me about interning their first semester at college. Students around campus compare their internships and stress of fitting in homework, class and sleep alongside it; all too often, something important falls by the wayside. The price of an internship simply might not be worth it for some students, but the culture and mentality that the school has created around internships make them feel it is necessary.
While there are undoubtedly plenty of students who can manage adding an internship to their workload, there are plenty of other students who cannot. With seemingly everything around them pushing them into an internship as early as their sophomore year, those students who can’t handle it might end up struggling through one anyway. When we’re told to achieve in class, maintain a high GPA, complete all our homework on time, join a minimum of two campus organizations and hold down a 20-hour per week internship, other equally as vital aspects of college go ignored.
Furthermore, internships simply aren’t a financial possibility for every student, as some need a paying job to afford the expenses of college life. Many (if not most) internships, especially those on Capitol Hill or other government entities, are unpaid, which isn’t feasible for everyone. Lower-income students need a job that actually pays in order to afford the many costs of being at college such as tuition, meals and rent. College is expensive, and not just because of the rising costs of tuition. Students also need to eat, receive healthcare and pay for class materials. In many cases, an admirable yet unpaid internship may need to be bypassed for a paying job. The obsession surrounding an internship also seemingly negates the hard work and time that goes into these other jobs; as someone who has worked in retail, I can attest that it is not at all easy, and shouldn’t be held in a lower regard.
Another issue that comes up at colleges with such an intense intern culture is that not everyone is in the right mental or emotional place to balance an internship on top of everything else. Many AU students deal with mental illness, even those that don’t experience immense amounts of stress from schoolwork. The added pressure of finding an internship doesn’t help and makes students feel like they need one even if they mentally cannot handle it.
The burden shouldn’t be placed on students to solve this. It’s hard for them to give up something when their environment is telling them to do the opposite. Telling them to “just be less stressed” isn’t going to solve much at all. The school itself needs to be more aware of the messages it sends regarding the culture of over-achieving.
For the sake of its students, AU needs to strike a balance between encouraging students to get work experience and recognizing that multiple internships aren’t going to be a possibility for everyone, even though everyone really does love to brag about those “Hillternships.”
Lauren Patetta is a junior in the School of Communications and an assistant editor for the Opinion section.