Staff editorial: Internship stipends provide opportunity, suffer from lack of flexibility

Next Friday, March 1, will mark the first deadline for Washington University students to apply for stipends to help fund their summer internships. These unpaid internships are often valuable for students, helping to round out their resumes and provide them with work experience relevant to their career aspirations over the summer months. Not all students, however, possess the resources to take advantage of these opportunities because they cannot afford travel, housing and other expenses for the summer.

Washington University has sought to address these inequities through a variety of stipends given out through the Career Center. According to their website, these stipends aim to “help offset the costs of unpaid internships” by “[providing] a limited number of stipends to qualified students.” A merit-based stipend of up to $1,000 is available, along with a need-based stipend of up to $3,000. Exact amounts are based on the length of the internship, location and demonstrated need, among other factors.

Related to these stipends, a Washington University parent created a temporary fund for travelling to job interviews that can be applied for through the Career Center website. This stipend has no explicit cap, can be used once per student, and will continue to exist until the donation funding runs out. Applications for this stipend are processed within 48 hours; and if approved, students are reimbursed for travel and housing expenses through receipts.

While the available stipends to assist students are valuable, the University should consider adjusting the system by which it allocates these funds in order to better support students.

Perhaps the most obvious barrier for students hoping to access these funds is a logistical one—the first application deadline for the internship stipends falls March 1, and the second April 1. Many companies, however, do not hire their interns until after at least the first of these deadlines, and occasionally not until after the second. This means that students who receive an internship offer on, for example, April 2, would be placed on a waitlist to receive extra funding, whether merit- or need-based. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and it can prevent lower-income students, who already face wide disparities in wealth at the University, from having yet another experience unavailable to them in comparison to their higher-income peers.

One step that could help to address this issue would be to increase the flexibility and practicality of the stipend application deadlines. Of course, by setting a deadline the Career Center is able to process applications and respond to students in a timely manner, which is an important consideration. However, pushing the deadlines back slightly and allowing rolling acceptances before these new deadlines could allow greater number of students to be accommodated while still maintaining functionality.

In addition to providing additional flexibility on deadlines, the Career Center should also consider looking to the travel stipend mentioned earlier for inspiration. Many times, relatively small costs like transportation and food can make the difference between a low-income student being able to complete an unpaid internship and not, and the creation of a program designed to specifically address these costs—from bus passes to grocery bills—could significantly increase the ability of low-income students to take these opportunities.

In the meantime, students who have received unpaid internship offers should take advantage of the programs in place and apply for these stipends as soon as possible. Internships can be significant vehicles for career advancement and ensuring equitable access to them is a goal Washington University students and administration should strive for.

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