Suiting Up Early

With the economy still in a slump and not looking up, many students — worried their UCSD diploma may not be the prestigious piece of parchment it was cracked up to be — are pursuing an academic internship to iron neatly onto their resume.

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive, being a GPA superstar isn’t enough to edge out the other candidates. Landing an internship while in college can be just as clutch as keeping up the Provost’s Honors we’ve guarded since freshman year.

Here at UCSD, the Academic Internship Program is seeing a spike in participants. During the 2008-09 academic year, the AIP enrolled just over 550 students; however, program officials estimate that the numbers for the 2009-10 academic year will reach well over 600. And according to the 2006 Graduating Student Survey, 44 percent of students who were involved in academic or co-curricular activities while attending UCSD participated in an internship, compared to 23 percent who participated in study-abroad programs or the 25 percent who enrolled in honors or advanced courses.

Of course, not every internship guarantees a stellar experience and post-graduate employment — they can also be a keen strategy for companies to extract cheap labor from wide-eyed, Xerox-savvy undergrads.

The AIP was established in 1976 to give students an opportunity to bridge the gap between their studies and professional career goals. Unlike internships discovered through independent research, academic internships also allow students to earn credit toward upper-division general electives with a ‘Pass’/‘No Pass’ grade. And since many participating companies require that their unpaid interns receive verifiable credit that students must pay for to receive, enrollment in the AIP isn’t always optional.

According to AIP Assistant Director and Internship Counselor Tricia Taylor-Oliveira, the AIP’s staff is available to provide referrals and advice during the application process — helping students edit cover letters and resumes, discussing their career goals and even aiding in the selection process.

According to Taylor-Oliveira, the AIP office is not only a great resource for landing a job, but also expanding students’ awareness and knowledge about any field they may plan on going into.

“I tell students to think actively and seek out every opportunity to get more out of the experience,” Taylor-Oliveira said. “You know if it’s a good time to talk, they might really sit down and chat with you about how they got there and what steps they needed to take.”

She said the intern’s experience is always valuable — even if it doesn’t guarantee you a job.

“If the internship doesn’t lead to a job, you network and meet people, get contacts of people who can be useful to connect to other opportunities,” Taylor-Oliveira said.

2009 Revelle College alumnus Craig Hill currently works at Doan Law Firm as a legal assistant, where he first began as an academic intern. With the help of the AIP internship database, Hill said he was able to apply to a law firm that fit his learning expectations based on the comments that previous interns had left in the AIP’s database.

“While I could have applied on my own, I wouldn’t have known what to look for,” Hill said. “Just the fact that they gave me contacts to call and [told me] what to have prepared streamlined the whole process for me.”

Though some students have expressed complaints about the expenses and workload required to earn academic credit through AIP, Hill remains a proponent of the program.

“As an out-of-state student, I paid $40,000 to go school, and it is really nice to know that my tuition paid for programs like AIP that give you opportunities like this,” Hill said. “Having these resources are great, because you can’t find things like this once you are out of college.”

At Doan Law Firm, Hill learned about consumer litigation by working alongside lawyers — assisting them in analyzing legal material, conducting research and talking to clients.

“I was actually in the field, and you kind of just have to go with the flow,” Hill said. “You pick up jargon and learn to apply the concepts you just read in books.”

Needless to say, Hill was a success story for the AIP. He said he was simply fortunate that Doan Law Firm was hiring legal assistants around the time his internship ended.

For the majority of students, internships offer academic credit for the time they devote and their training. Some manage to score a paid internship, if they’re lucky. In many cases, students devote 30 hours of work per week they’re not getting paid for, on top of jobs they may already have, as well as class work. While many students like Hill eagerly accept credits as pay, Warren College senior Dara Bu sees it as a loophole for companies to extort free labor from a generation of potential employees struggling to secure an advantage in an evolving job market.

Bu said it was a difficult decision to invest hefty hours into unpaid office work in lieu of an actual job. In addition, paying standard academic fees for the units seemed an unfair burden.

“At one point, I had two internships, both unpaid, while working a part-time job,” Bu said. “I knew it was a good experience, but it just sucked putting in so much time to something when I knew I could have been making money doing something else.”

Though some companies offer paid internships, others get away with hawking academic credit as long as their criteria meet the standards of the Fair Labor Standards Act. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the FLSA states that students can be regarded as “trainees” as long as they meet criteria stipulating that both parties understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for time spent in training. Students must work under close supervision, and the employer that provides the training must receive no immediate advantage from the activities — the training must strictly benefit the student.

To ensure that students are indeed applying for legitimate internships that meet UCSD’s specific educational standards, Taylor-Oliveira says that the AIP office acts as a kind of filter — screening out any potentially shady companies while maintaining a database for the ones that students have enjoyed.

However, Warren College senior Lisa Tat said she found it to be a disadvantage that students are forced to work a minimum number of hours in order to meet the academic-credit requirements, as opposed to adapting to a more natural work-place schedule.

During Winter Quarter, Tat interned for San Diego County Speech Pathology as an office assistant and “Reading Stars” tutor. She taught preschool and kindergarten students about phonetics for roughly 65 minutes twice a week, and — for the remaining hours — made cutouts, pamphlets and games for the children’s activities.

“I struggled to find work to do after teaching the children how to read,” Tat said. “Because the point of an internship is to gain experience and learn as much as you can in the field, there is no point of filling up the hours just to do so.”

The program requires at least 10 hours a week of labor, a 10-page research paper, an exit evaluation and three online workshops — which equate to a four-unit course. Tat said she felt she was putting in more hours than necessary for an ideal experience.

“It should be up to the discretion of the supervisor at the internship site to assign the kind of work and determine how many hours you work,” said Tat.

According to Taylor-Oliveira, the AIP may not be a perfect fit for students who already have too much on their plate.

“It’s a serious academic endeavor that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Taylor-Oliveira said. “But for those who do commit, an academic internship helps [them] see the practical side of what they are studying in classrooms.”

As a double major in communications and international history, Bu said her first internship experience at MTV Tres — the popular music channel’s Latin-American sibling — did help her narrow her career scope. Despite the stress of having to intern while holding down a job and taking four classes, Bu said the academic internship helped put her studies into perspective.

“Even though I studied the history of Latin America, I realized I sucked at actually speaking Spanish, and was not even that in-tune with the culture,” Bu said. “I also didn’t like how everything had to appeal to a streamlined audience.”

Following her internship at MTV Tres, Bu scored a higher-level internship at Elle Communications, where she explored fashion and design by selecting outfits for display mannequins and traveling to fashion shows in New York. She says that it was likely because of her experience at MTV Tres that she got the internship with Elle.

“I realized how much I loved working in this field, dealing with clients and doing things like designing window sets,” Bu said. “PR and marketing is much more interactive and fun for me.”

Experts at the Economic Policy Institute have even proposed legislation that would force the federal government to appropriate $500 million annually to support up to 100,000 low-income college students’ internships. According to co-author of the legislation Alexander Hertel-Hernandez, most low-income college students are not full-time, so they can’t receive financial aid for the cost of an unpaid internship which includes transportation, food and temporary housing. By subsidizing unpaid internships for lower-income students, Hertel-Hernandez said, the federal government would be opening up opportunities for a more diverse array of students to participate in internships that are usually given to middle- and upper-income students.

Incidentally, Hertel-Hernandez got his job at the Economic Policy Institute after interning there during his senior year of college.

According to the Undergraduate Student Experience and Satisfaction Survey conducted by UCSD’s Office of Student Research and Information, students who engage in creative, non-classroom activities are considerably more satisfied with their overall college experience than those students who do not pursue experiences that take the them beyond the lecture hall, lab and library experience.

Accordingly, former Doan Law Firm intern Hill advocated the AIP wholeheartedly, and recommended that students get an internship while in school. Even if it means having to shoulder a little more than they’re used to, he said, it will make their prospects after graduation that much brighter.

“Some people spend all that money for graduate school when they are unsure it is what they want to get into, and plenty of them are still unemployed,” Hill said. “Do an internship — take advantage of the fact that you are there to learn and can [do it] at your own pace. The experience is invaluable.”

Readers can contact Kelly Kim at [email protected].

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