Nepotism and networks: Inequity in internship access for students

By Kayla Drazan

For undergraduate students, the process of applying to internships can be a daunting one, further complicated by the advantages and networks that only some have access to. Depending on the industry, the timelines for submitting an application can vary greatly, with some summer internships in fields like finance starting as early as the fall. Staying on top of these recruitment and application deadlines is important if you want to stand out among the numerous other applicants. However, those with the right connections are often the ones who can navigate the process most easily, successfully taking hold of the many internship opportunities.

A deep inequity exists among students without connections or resources to aid them in the internship process and those who rely on privilege and nepotism. Out of 2,400 college students surveyed by LendEdu, “43% had relied on family connections to land an interview.” Furthermore, it is much more likely for a student to have these connections if they are higher income and/or have parents working in the industry they seek to join. 

The reality for students is that in order to find employment after school, internships are becoming increasingly necessary. While it is true that internships provide the experience and help to develop the skills required for a lot of positions, the current situation presents a difficult and inaccessible reality for many. If students are expected to have prior experience before even getting an internship, yet the internship itself is the way in which this experience is acquired, how are students supposed to succeed? Considering that often the only way people get necessary experience is through internships acquired through connections, students navigating this dilemma without the access to these backdoor opportunities may find themselves stuck. 

Still, the process is even more complicated when factoring in whether or not the internship is paid or unpaid. According to a 2021 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 40% of interns are still unpaid,  despite the large amount of time and extra expenses that students must put in for these positions. This begs the question as to why students must take on uncompensated labor in order to find employment and gain experience. More concerning, however, is how these types of positions are often only accessible to higher-income students who can afford to not get paid. Consequently, lower-income students or students who cannot work without pay are limited to a drastically smaller pool of viable internships. The inequity in terms of compensation offered only serves to increase economic inequality within the workforce. Students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds already have to contend with many challenges in order to receive an education and find a job after college; the experiences they need to get there should not be an additional barrier. 

For international students, the internship process in the United States can also present several challenges. Receiving a work permit requires a significant amount of paperwork, which is a complicated and time-consuming endeavor for students facing quick deadlines. Language barriers and requirements like U.S. citizenship can also further complicate this search. 

The stress students face in applying to and seeking out internships can foster a toxic academic and social environment on campus. With the presence of networking sites like LinkedIn, it is easy for students to begin to compare their academic experiences and accomplishments with those of other students, creating a sense of anxiety that they may be falling behind. Students from less privileged backgrounds may fall victim to feelings of inadequacy or ‘imposter syndrome’ within this internship culture. Not only does this take a toll on student health and well-being, but it also creates detrimentally competitive environments where students feel the need to constantly measure up to their peers.

So, what can be done to help mitigate the effects of this toxic undergraduate internship culture? 

Tufts, much like many other universities, has a career center where students can receive help when applying to internships or other academic opportunities. In an effort to encourage students to engage with the opportunities available, the Career Center offers $4,000 grants to over 50 undergraduate students enrolled in unpaid internships each summer through Tufts Career Center Summer Internship Grants. Additionally, through the Tisch Summer Fellows program, students can apply to a selection of internships through the Tisch College of Civic Life. If selected, each student is awarded $5,250 of funding from Tufts for their work. Beyond this, the Career Center offers an additional list of funding resources for students in a variety of subject areas. 

Through these programs, Tufts has set an example of the kinds of comprehensive efforts that universities should adopt in order to support their students in their professional endeavors. Beyond the institutional aid necessary to combat this issue, many students have a responsibility to be cognizant of this culture and their place in it. Especially at a prestigious institution like Tufts where the majority of the student body comes from financially privileged backgrounds, it is imperative that those of us who do benefit from these systems recognize the systemic advantages at play. 

Current university students will one day collectively occupy positions of power within the very industries that are beholden to these structures of generational and financial privilege. If we do not consistently recognize and call attention to the egregious inequity within these systems and begin to work towards more equitable opportunities, future generations will continue to suffer at the hands of our ignorance. 

Despite the commendable efforts of the Career Center to aid students through this difficult process, the influence of generational privilege and close connections cannot be understated. It is not within the power of individual universities or students to compensate for the lack of adequately paid internships available. This is why, ultimately, the practice of offering and encouraging participation in unpaid internships should be abolished. Simply put, if a company is not prepared to offer sufficient pay to the people whose labor they use, they should not seek to hire interns in the first place. Demanding labor without pay is unethical and exploitative, and there is no reason why undergraduate students should be exempt from these standards. 


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