“So, you’re doing an unpaid internship. How are you paying for it all?”
The first thing people always ask me when I mention I am doing an internship is whether or not it is paid. When I sheepishly admit that it is unpaid, they feign surprise and do not hesitate to ask the incredibly personal question of how I manage to survive without living in a garbage can like Oscar the Grouch, as if I was the first person they had ever met to do an unpaid internship. Quelle horreur!
You would never ask someone exactly how much money they make in a year, and if you do, it is always politely phrased in the brackets “if you don’t mind me asking…” Nobody has to justify their salaried positions, but those of use who don’t make money are forced to explain our lack of it. How in hell is it gauche for rich people to talk money, but others are allowed to nose into the personal lives of those who are struggling as if it was for the public record.
How I pay for my lifestyle is something I would rather not discuss, partially because I feel I shouldn’t have to, but also because it is a huge sore spot in my life. I’m not interested in telling strangers how I walk an hour to work every day because I would rather not have the added expense of public transit, among other money-saving initiatives. It makes for a shitty, depressing and downright humiliating conversation.
It’s fucking ridiculous how no one ever asks University students how they survive in school. Kids pay thousands of dollars every semester to go to school and ‘educate themselves’, which usually means smoking a lot of weed and staying up all-night writing a paper they forgot was due. Higher education is a hell of a lot more expensive than working for free and nobody ever asks students how they manage, because it’s obvious: they either assume gross debt in the form of student loans, or their parents pay for school, possibly both. I’m sure there are some people who can afford to pay their own educational expenses through co-op programs, but these self-supporting students are not the overwhelming majority.
So, hearing people ask such a grating and personal question about my bank account on a regular basis makes me want to freak out and go all Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men; “You can’t handle the truth!!”
What were my choices, really? I could continue to work my shitty part-time minimum wage retail job and supplement it with my freelance writing income indefinitely, or I could choose to spend my days doing something that I really, really, wanted to do, which is work at a magazine.
In retail, I was wasting away. I went to work, served the customers, and went home. I was not going to “move up in the company” because I didn’t give a shit about the company. It was mindless, meaningless and was contributing nothing to my desired career path. So I decided to leave it behind in favour of improving my skills and making connections in a field that I desperately want to work in. My internship is stressful and intense, but I know I am good at what I do and getting better every day. The work I do is gratifying, and I am happy to do it. I no longer dread going to a work where I have to smile at people and repeat the same eight sentences for hours on end.
But still, how am I paying for it? There is really no way to say “my parents are helping me out” without sounding like a privileged, Park Avenue princess. Yes, I have privilege, but at the same time I am just paying my dues. The media industry is structured in a way that supports this privilege. Unpaid internships are completely unfair, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are commonplace. Thousands of young people have paved the way by working for free before me, and thousands will continue to trample the path long after my six months are completed.
If you haven’t read the article “How to Succeed in Journalism Without Doing an Unpaid Internship” yet, you really should. I won’t ruin the article for you, but.. Actually I will. Spoiler alert, the answer is privilege.
Next time you ask somebody how they can afford to do an unpaid internship, maybe you should ask yourself how you afford to eat $10 lunches three times a week, or how you justify spending $100+/month on your cell phone bill. People justify certain expenses because they want them in their lives. It’s really as simple as that. You are probably not a financial angel with a Suze Orman-shaped halo, so it is not your place to label me while I live as frugally as I can in the hopes that it will someday pay off.