Some Summer Interns

by Daniel D’Addario


A recent Times article on the restrictiveness of summer internship guidelines painted a certain picture of those students for whom summer is a time for building one’s resume-for the students with whom the average Sunday Styles reader is acquainted. Writing a trend piece on the summer internship, or the youngs in general, however attractive a poster child any wistful art-history major locked out of art-industry positions might be, is an impossible thing to do.

I should know-I tried to write one, having pitched and reported a story that was killed for its narrative drift, its lack of hook. The experiences students encounter when arranging summer work are so particular that they can’t be reported as part of a larger story about the economy or about This Generation. They mainly indicate that people are resourceful, far more resourceful than the stymied twentysomethings of a trend story, and that they are willing to reinvent just what summer work can be, even if on a very small scale.

Amanda Cormier, a rising Columbia junior, planned ahead to combine an unpaid internship with paid work (this is a notion that the Times left unexplored). Cormier spoke enthusiastically about her internship at the New York Observer, where she estimated she’d be working about thirty-five hours a week, unpaid. While this number may seem staggering, Amanda praised the Observer’s flexibility; they’ve allowed her to take one day off a week to work as an assistant to a Columbia computer science professor.

To speak with Amanda is to observe that ability to willfully create experience that gets lost post-college. “I got hired at the beginning of the year as an assistant,” she said of her work at Columbia, “and started redesigning the website, filed and started a library system-a lot of work-study jobs are just swiping [ID cards in dorms].” Amanda worked to create a good relationship with her employer from their first meeting last September, knowing that she would be looking for employment in the summer.

Amanda’s department now pays her directly, so as not to reduce her work-study allocation for the coming year. “There’s options-you just have to do it proactively,” she said. In past summers, she’s worked at Jack in the Box, Cold Stone Creamery and a summer camp. This summer is meant to maximize her experience in a manageable fashion, though: “I guess it would be really fantastic if I got some actual journalism experience without going broke or going into debt.”

Yin Yin Lu, also a rising junior at Columbia, is attempting the same balance of experience and feeding herself, as editor of the Columbia-produced guidebook Inside New York, a paid position. As the staff turns over yearly-this is Yin’s first summer as editor-in-chief, though she was features editor last summer-the book is written practically from scratch each year before being sold in the Columbia bookstore and nationally. “The reason people want to be involved with Inside New York -the money is not the first thing, it’s just an added benefit.” Which is a good thing, as, aside from comped meals at fancy restaurants and tickets to shows, the student writers for the guidebook whom Yin oversees are unpaid.

Yin estimated, though, that she will make $4500 from her ten weeks of work at $10 per billable hour-making a profit after deducting her inexpensive sublet near Columbia. (Housing represents one of the great anxieties for college students working away from home: Amanda considered sharing a studio apartment with a forty-year-old woman in Inwood; her mother protested.) Last summer, as the editor of the book’s features section, she made $1100 while interning at a publishing house in an unpaid capacity and commuting daily from New Jersey.

Moving to New York represents a reduction in transportation expenses and will allow her to work late hours on the book, as unpaid correspondents tend to feel more alienated from their labor than will their editor. “The biggest problem, I think, last summer was more organizational than anything else-a lot of writers went on vacation without telling us.” Yin developed her plans for summer housing and summer employment in tandem, and is unlikely to take a break from a situation she so painstakingly arranged. Last summer, she says, “I was doing Inside New York not only on vacation, but [at home] in Jersey, and I edited articles on a vacation in Florida.”

For other students, the pre-planned, paid summer experience and the travel-though not vacation-are one and the same. Carolyn Brown, a rising senior at Brown, arranged for funding through her university for a study trip to American Samoa. “I started working on my summer project this past fall,” Carolyn wrote in an email; she had been working on an independent study analyzing data sets on gestational diabetes in Samoa when she suggested to her professor that she might look into barriers to prenatal care.

Like Amanda’s, Carolyn’s summer would not be possible without serious forethought. She’s using a $3500 grant from Brown to travel and research. And also like Amanda, Carolyn is taking something of a financial loss to research rather than take a hypothetical, traditional summer job: she said that plane tickets cost about $2000 and the balance of her grant will go towards “living expenses, a translator and assistant” and other work-related costs.

She has spent the past two summers building greenhouses with a local non-governmental organization in Honduras. Before college, she had worked in a restaurant and summer camps.

Something about the pressure-cooker environment of college-merged with the dwindling availability of waiting and camp counseling jobs and the like-makes certain students gear up for summer early in the school year, ensuring that they take advantage of institutional connections.

Even students less strategic about university streams of money than Amanda, Yin and Carolyn have pulled together intriguing summers. I spoke to a friend of mine, a rising senior at Columbia who preferred not to be named because of the confidential nature of his project, who had no definite plan for the summer as recently as February-an eternity, by some standards. “I eventually decided not to do two jobs [at once], but I was never sure how this was going to materialize,” he said. Relatives connected him to a man in prison who was looking to pay a writer to produce a nonfiction account of his life, and by April he had gotten the prisoner’s approval.

In some ways, my friend’s project provides but an excuse to stay in New York, that internship Valhalla. He’s taking a history class at Columbia while doing research for his book, largely in New Jersey and he hopes to have a complete outline and several chapters done by the time school is back in session. As for money, “there’s enough assistance for what the summer will cost. After three years, I feel like I’ve learned enough about what limits to stay inside of. If I manage that effectively, then I should be in good shape.”

My friend had worked in a restaurant and as a bank teller in his high school years in the Midwest. But then during the past two summers, he’d been a full-time tutor in New York and a full-time intern in Washington. “I think it’d be really cool, because I’d love to be in Michigan for the summer,” he said. “It’s just the way circumstances have gone for the past three years.”

He’s as assiduous a planner as anyone I know, and his seeming wistfulness at not being able to return home represents to me how “work experience” has shifted in definition. It has moved towards a notion of using one’s time in as practical a manner as possible-in a quiet, maybe boring valley somewhere between mercenary and hedonistic.

Daniel D’Addario has written about college for The Daily Beast and IvyGate and about movies for Newsweek.

Photo by Travis Isaacs, from Flickr.