Posted by the Editorial Board
Our college gives deserving students money to pursue unpaid internships. This is the kind of project that needs to be trumpeted by tour guides, praised by professors and buzzed about around campus every March. But first, it needs to become what the college needs: a program that serves the students who deserve help the most.
In the Responsible Citizenship Internship Awards, SGA has created an admirable program that could help level a job search playing field that has historically favored the wealthy and well-connected. But to do this, the program needs to evaluate merit only within a pool of students who have established financial need, to be as certain as possible that money will go to food and rent — not shopping budgets and weekend vacations.
At its best, the RCIA program's importance can't be discounted. It helps combat real unfairness in a world where summer internships historically act as just another way the wealthy take care of their own, where students with financial need stand at a severe disadvantage. Without paychecks attached to many of the top opportunities, positions favor those students who can afford to choose an unpaid internship at their dream post-graduation company of choice, in place of a summer's wages at the neighborhood retail chain.
Limited financial resources can also restrict some students' ability to relocate to pursue opportunities where they're available, a serious issue for those students living in rural or low-income areas. Already without the connections and networking opportunities available to their wealthier classmates, these students can be left with limited options and, come graduation day, bleak choices.
As college graduates become a dime a dozen, work experience has become the chief way that employers differentiate among applicants. But besides helping students win jobs after graduation, internships help students hone in on what they want to do in an overwhelming field of options. Whether an experience is good or bad, these summers can be instrumental in helping students learn what kind of offices and industries suit them best. Back in the classroom, students will find that what they learned on the job can act as a complement to and an application of their professors' lectures.
In short, internships have become as integral a piece of the college experience as caffeine and midterms. As shown in administrative work like the "Transitions and Transformations" document, which highlights the need for "experiential learning," administrators recognize the value and importance of how students spend their summers. In setting up the RCIA program, SGA makes these influential experiences available to more students—a powerful example of how students can put administrative theories into action.
But as this new program begins to take shape, the college needs to structure RCIA as a program that makes internships accessible, not just easy. That is, awards need to be given to only those students who would otherwise be unable to pursue unpaid summer internships, in a very real sense: not because their parents are stingy, or because they'd have to scrimp, but because those opportunities would not be possible. Making that distinction about a student's true financial need won't be easy, but it's necessary. And within that specific pool of candidates, only then should merit be considered.
We're a community that talks a big game about confronting our own privilege. But RCIA could genuinely be a step in that direction, toward a graduation day where all students who walk across the stage have had the same opportunities available to them in the last four years.
This is a program that has the real potential to make our college a better place. Let's not screw it up.