Overheard whispers of internships with Goldman Sachs and brands like Dior, Celine and Hermès stir an internal desperation within NYU students who just want a job anywhere — often for little or no pay. Unpaid internships have stirred controversy because, often, lower-income students cannot afford to take them, yet students still put these opportunities on a pedestal in hopes of getting their foot in the door.
For students that landed big-name internships with no pay, the actual experience was often disappointing.
CAS junior Serina Morales found an internship with a smaller media company on Indeed, enticed by the description that boasted the media company’s close ties with CNN. What seemed like a great opportunity at first soon proved to be the opposite.
Besides Morales, there were over 16 other interns from all over the world — from Alaska to China. It turned out to be a start-up company with no current relation to CNN.
“I wasn’t sure what we were actually trying to report, and I soon found out that the company had no idea what they wanted to report, either,” Morales said.
The red flags started to pop up fairly quickly. Interns occasionally had to video chat with each other over small decisions like font size and color. These lengthy debates, not supervised by any managers, resulted in no decisions. Morales also started to question whether the interns were of legal age — they looked and acted like awkward teenagers.
“I often read passive aggressive texts, and I also received private messages from interns complaining about how ‘bitchy’ others were, sometimes even mentioning the founder in that way,” Morales said. “It continued this way for months.”
Beyond the horrors that come with working with other interns, many students are faced with tasks that are seemingly unrelated to their job. As a former fashion PR intern at a small boutique, Gallatin junior Maya Kotomori’s responsibilities ranged from writing up press releases to picking up dog poop.
“The company I worked for shared their space with another showroom, and when designers that worked for that showroom got a puppy, it suddenly became everyone’s responsibility — even mine, as an intern for the other company,” Kotomori said.
Kotomori’s supervisors reasoned with her that pet-sitting was one of the essential skills she could learn to help her succeed in the fashion industry. However, she said that instead of feeling rewarded, she only felt neglected and embarrassed in the workplace.
“I guess they valued Minty [the dog] more than the interns they exploited,” Kotomori said. “Needless to say, I don’t work there anymore.”
CAS junior Doreen Wang had similar experiences when she interned for a kids’ clothing subscription service. Though she styled subscription boxes, she also found herself saddled with an array of menial tasks on top of having to come in for extra hours on weekends.
“It was an unpaid internship, and they had a whole soccer team of unpaid interns,” Wang said.
However, Wang was the only one willing to be a team player. And when the company moved to Industry City in Brooklyn, she found the daily commute from the Upper West Side to be a challenge. When someone in the company offered to help, it was in a creepy and uncomfortable way.
“One of the founders was like, ‘Well, I can come pick you up. I would drive you whenever you need to,’ which is weird because, you know, I was just an intern,” Wang said. “I wouldn’t want him to know where I live.”
NYU students live and learn the risky business behind unpaid work, proving that it may not be worth sacrificing one’s integrity for an internship.
Email Valerie Stepanova at [email protected].