Internship Power

By Eric Schwarz


Thanks to Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker for calling attention to unpaid and uncredited summer internships as an overlooked but surprisingly potent driver of inequality ("Internships Are Not a Privilege").

As the privileged beneficiary of an unpaid internship for a US Senate re-election campaign -- an internship obtained and paid for through parental connections -- I know first-hand the power of well-structured internships to build skills and networks that change lives.  In my case, the unpaid internship led directly to my first paid job after college and also to my first job in the social sector, where I have built a career, serving most recently as Co-Founder and CEO of the College for Social Innovation.  I didn't realize it at the time, but now I understand that of 2000 students in my college graduating class, I was one of just a handful with access to the type of well-supported, highly-networked, mentor-rich experience I benefited from.

At College for Social Innovation our aspiration is to equalize access to the career-building power of well-designed internships. Just as an internship changed my life and changed Darren Walker's life, we think every college student deserves access to one or more meaningful work experiences --experiences that may include making copies or entering data but also include purposeful projects, feedback from a mentor, and access to successful professionals.  A recent study by the Gallup organization, the Gallup-Purdue Index, indicated that college students who had access while in college to a job or internship related to their studies were twice as likely to be successful in their careers. 

Unfortunately, well-supported paid internships are a scarce commodity, particularly so in the social sector and in for-profit start-ups that are fast-growing but cash poor.  Also, as Nate Silver and colleagues point out in their recent article on summer jobs, well-connected wealthier youth are more likely to land a dwindling supply of summer jobs than the lower-income youth who need them most.  Good unpaid internships are theoretically less scarce.  But as Walker points out -- and as my experience underscores -- unpaid internships usually go to wealthier students who get a subsidy from their parents.   

We believe that College for Social Innovation offers a way to massively scale the type of experiences Walker and I benefited from.  Rather than offering money that many employers don't have -- or supporting internships with finite philanthropy -- our plan is to offer college credit.  Not just one or two credits but a full semester of credit for a full semester of work.  By offering fully-credited internships -- complemented by powerful skill-building and reflective sessions one night a week plus Fridays -- we believe we can attract diverse students and advance our mission to educate and inspire the next generation of problem solvers for humanity's toughest challenges.

Our Fall 2016 student cohort from our founding partner, University of New Hampshire

Our Fall 2016 student cohort from our founding partner, University of New Hampshire

In our upcoming inaugural semester, two-thirds of our students will be low-income, first generation college students, and/or students of color.  They are students like Linda, an Ethiopian-American who wrote: "I know that if I want a successful career in education policy I need to be confident in my ability to analyze and interpret data, write policy, and many more skills. I hope to learn these skills and much more through this opportunity". 

By convincing colleges to offer full credit to students who complete a semester in our program -- and by leveraging mentors and meaningful work in the fast-growing sector -- we believe we can craft a solution to the big social justice challenge Walker highlights.