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Unpaid Internships Put Many College Students In A Tough Spot

SYRACUSE (WRVO) - Many college students will tell you one of the best ways to secure a good job after graduating is to find an internship. That’s an easy enough task, but finding one that’s paid can be a little more challenging.

Abbey Buttacavoli is a junior at SUNY Oswego. She couldn’t pursue an internship with a company she wanted to work for because it didn’t provide pay.

“It just wouldn't have worked,” Buttacavoli said. “And I wish it could have, because it is a really good opportunity, but not having that financial support or stability is not an option.”

But some students are willing to live with a little financial instability in exchange for experience, even if it means they’ll be heading into the workforce with an empty bank account.

Anthony Sagrestano is a senior at Oswego. He’s graduating this month--and he’s feeling the lack of financial stability.

“That internship is kinda, you know, starting me off on a bad foot,” Sagrestano said.

He did take an unpaid internship over the summer--and now that he’s headed out into the real world without much cash in his wallet, he’s not sure it was the best option.

“Now there is no next school year,” Sagrestano said. “This winter break is no longer winter break, it’s life. So not only am I entering that with no job and no real idea, now I’m entering with no job, no idea, and no money.”

Sagrestano expressed frustration that the work he did at his internship wasn’t rewarded the way he wished it would have been.

“It’s one thing if you’re doing an unpaid internship and you’re just really shadowing, and you’re just kind of learning the ropes because you’re not helpful,” Sagrestano said. “You’re not really, you know, contributing to their finished product, where I felt that I was contributing to that finished product.”

Scott Furlong , SUNY Oswego’s Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, says students who take unpaid internships need to weigh the risks and benefits. But in the end, having that experience will be better in the long run.

“I do think, in the grand scheme of things, that they will likely be better served by doing an unpaid or a low-paid internship during the summer, compared to picking up a job somewhere that may have no direct effect in terms of what they want to be as a professional,” Furlong said.

But Buttacavoli says she can’t really afford to think about the “grand scheme of things” like that--literally.

“I can’t go too long without having some sort of income,” Buttacavoli said. “There are a lot of expenses.”

She’s concerned her inability to take unpaid internships could hold her back in ways students with more financial security don’t have to worry about. If she can’t find a paid internship next summer, she’ll have to pick up a job--one that’s probably unrelated to her career aspirations.

“I wouldn’t be getting the necessary skills that would help me further my career later on,” Buttacavoli said. “I would just be staying kind of static, with this job that some high school kids could get.”

There are many students in Buttacavoli’s position--and Oswego’s internship network, the Center for Experiential Learning, is aware of this.

The Center’s outreach coordinator, Christina Buckingham, says many students who look for internships themselves assume that there is no other option than to accept the terms set by the company, or look elsewhere. The Center works with students to ensure that they find internships they can afford to take, and even can even negotiate with businesses about whether internships will be unpaid or paid, but students have to be willing to ask for help.

“There are always ways to figure that out. I’ve never come across a student that we haven’t been able to problem solve for," Buckingham said. ”It all comes down to a student being comfortable enough to say, ‘No, you know what? I really need to be paid.’”

In addition to the help the center offers in finding paid internships, there are also scholarship and grant programs for internships that students can apply for. The trouble with these measures, Buckingham says, is that they’re time consuming to set up.

“The student has to be willing to take the time, too. My advice to those students is to make sure that you’re planning ahead of time," Buckingham said. ”If you’re thinking about doing an internship next year, as a junior, senior status, be looking sophomore year. Be thinking about ‘what process do I have to go through as a low-income student, what extra things am I able to look at now and research so I’m able to make sure that I have the things that I need in place’.”

But in order to get help finding internships, students need to know that it’s available. Buttacavoli was unaware of the extent to which the Center can help students find internships, and she says she wishes they’d publicize their services a bit more.

“It would have been nice to know,” Buttacavoli said. “Maybe they should talk about it a little bit more, and maybe bring it up to students looking for internships.”

But, now that she does know, she says she’s already planning on heading over to the Center get a head start for summer. There may still be a lot of internships out there that don’t pay, but at least there’s some help to seek out ones that do.

Erin Meyer is a senior at SUNY Oswego and an intern for WRVO