Unpaid internships vital for international, undocumented students

Felipe De La Hoz, Contributing Columnist

Unpaid internships have been a cause of heated discussion and perpetual frustration on college campuses. As the number of unpaid internships and students seeking them has risen, the conversation has reached a fever pitch. Estimates indicate that between one-fourth and one-half of U.S. internships do not compensate their interns. Regulators and students alike question whether this practice is harmful and, potentially, illegal. 

Most recently, the debate has inspired changes in labor policy pertaining to interns. Last April, Mayor Bill de Blasio approved a law that gave unpaid interns the right to sue if they are discriminated against or harassed by an employer. Other lawsuits aim to further shape the legal landscape of the unpaid internship by giving minimum wage to interns with responsibilities comparable to paid employees.

However, many people do not believe that these regulatory measures extend far enough and would like to see unpaid internships stripped from the collegiate landscape altogether. Tisch senior Christina Isnardi started an online petition to urge the Wasserman Center for Career Development to stop posting “illegal, exploitative unpaid internships” on the CareerNet website. At present time, the petition has received 1,190 signatures. This Fair Pay Campaign would eliminate unpaid internships, including top positions at the White House.

The frustration at working for free is understandable. Nobody wants to employ their talents without compensation. Regardless, some crucial voices are being left out of the dialogue — those who cannot do paid internships.

For international students like myself, there are many pitfalls and aggravations associated with not having a Social Security Number, and obtaining internships is one of them. While universities can help international students find paid internships through Curricular Practical Training, the eligibility requirements are narrow. The internship would have to be “directly related to your program of study,” invalidating those that are not directly related to a student’s declared major. There is also no guarantee that your CPT request will be approved. In the 2012-2013 academic year, internationals comprised 12 percent of the NYU student body. Unpaid internships are our best bet to obtain the work experience that proves pivotal to collegiate life.

For undocumented students, the picture is grimmer. Without the option of a CPT, the only doors open for undocumented students to gain work experience in their given field are through unpaid internships. With 18 states now offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, the percentage of undocumented students can only grow.

Until a system is created that allows international and undocumented students to be compensated the way citizens and permanent residents are, these students must rely on unpaid internships. Eliminating unpaid internships sacrifices the opportunities to gain valuable work experience.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 2 print edition. Email Felipe De La Hoz at [email protected].