Career Center stipends support students with unpaid internships

Summer internships can offer a wealth of experience. But actual wealth? Don’t bank on it.

To help financially strapped students, the Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis distributes $250,000 in stipends every summer to be used on rent, food and other living expenses.

“It’s critical for students to have meaningful work experiences as undergraduates in order to get that right job or into graduate school,” said Jennie Marchal, the Career Center’s associate director of employer relations. “This allows them to get the experience they need. Getting that job or that internship shouldn’t be determined by what their parents make. It should be based on what they are able to do.”

Megan Yeh, a junior studying history and anthropology in Arts & Sciences, said the summer stipend allowed her to stay in St. Louis last summer to intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in law or academia.

“I’m from a fairly small town and don’t think I would have been able to get the same internship opportunity there,” Yeh said. “I got to work with legislation, politicians and hospitals. Thanks to to the stipend program, I was able to have these experiences, build connections and fight for something that I am truly passionate about.”

All WUSTL undergraduates who are returning for at least one semester and have received an offer for an unpaid internship are eligible to apply. The stipends are funded by the Career Center and gifts from parents and alumni.

Unpaid internships are the norm in many industries, Marchal said. Nonprofit organizations rarely pay; neither do arts or entertainment businesses. They don’t have to.

“There may be a line of a thousand students who want to work for a film studio. So if you can’t take it because you are not going to get paid, there are another 999 applicants behind you,” Marchal said. “Students have no room to negotiate. That’s why it’s important to help where we can.”

The Career Center is not the only area of the university that offers summer stipends. The Skandalaris Center Internship Program offers a $5,000 stipend to students who intern at local start-ups. The Goldman Fellows Program at the Gephardt Institute for Public Service awards a $3,500 stipend to students who intern at nonprofit, community or governmental organizations in the region. And WUSTL’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship provides $4,000 to students conducting projects in the natural sciences.

In addition to its summer stipends, the Career Center also awards grants of up to $500 to eligible students who must travel to a job interview. Smaller grants also are available to attend Career Center Road Shows in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C.

“Many of these industries don’t come to St. Louis to recruit, so we’ll come to them,” Marchal said. “The students love them because it puts them in an office space and they can say, ‘Oh, so this is what it’s like to be a producer on the Today show,’ or ‘This is what I need to do if I want to be in publishing.’ We want to help them build those connections.”