What I Learned From Being A Paid Intern Among My Many Unpaid Peers

I’ve read a lot in the past couple of years about the growing disapproval of unpaid internships, including here on TFD, and it’s inspired me to share my own bizarre internship story. When I was in law school, I got an internship with the State Department. I was very excited because at the time I wanted to work for them, and I was going to get to spend 10 weeks in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite cities. And best of all, I was getting paid! I ended up getting around $14.60 an hour. While it was less than some of my peers were getting at their summer law firm internships, it was certainly more than the zero dollars I got at the other government internships I did in law school. Even though I was getting paid, that didn’t mean I was able to be self-sufficient. Before I ever got my first paycheck, I had to get a flight to DC and pay for a month’s worth of food, transportation, and housing costs. My parents (very generously) let me use their credit card because I was a broke law student living on student loans.

When I started my first day at the State Department, hundreds of us gathered at orientation, where I first realized that not every State Department intern would be getting paid. It was never really made clear to me how it was decided who got paid and who didn’t — I just knew that I was one of the lucky ones. On my second day, I went to my agency for the first time and I discovered while filling out paperwork that the other two people starting the same day as I were also getting paid. I figured that it must be an agency by agency thing, then.

I got sent off to my department within the agency and that’s when I met Kara.* Kara was an intern in my same department who had started the week before me. We shared an office and clicked immediately. While we were talking sometime that first week, I mentioned that I was getting paid, because I assumed that Kara was also being paid. I was very wrong. Not only was Kara not being paid, but the other interns she’d met the first week (and later introduced me to) were also not getting paid. I felt really guilty about that, but Kara and I came to the agreement not to share that I was getting paid with the other interns so that they wouldn’t hate me. The next week three more interns started in our department and we had 5 girls crammed into a not very large office for the next 8 weeks. The five of us all had basically the same job, just with a focus on different regions (I did Western Europe, Kara did Eastern Europe and Eurasia, etc.). The only real difference in our jobs is that I was the only one getting paid to do it.

And I felt terrible about it. I don’t mean to sound like a victim, it was just incredibly unfair to my friends. None of us was loaded. One girl’s parents lived in Arlington so she was able to stay with them, but most of the interns I met came from all over the country and were paying a lot of money for this unpaid opportunity. All summer long everyone talked about being broke and how they were free labor. During these conversations, I would just sit there quietly and pray the topic changed soon. To assuage my guilt, I tried to overcompensate by paying for more than my fair share of food and drinks when we would hang out. Luckily, I had a true friend in Kara. Not only did she never tell anyone, but she never tried to make me feel bad about the situation. It also just really helped to have someone I didn’t have to lie to. If it had been up to me, I would have never told any of the other interns that I was the only one in our group getting paid.

However, one day towards the end of the summer, someone from Human Resources popped into our office to remind me to turn the time sheet that I, as a paid intern, was required to fill out. One of the interns in my office turned and asked me point blank if I was getting paid. I finally had to admit. Nobody said anything more about it to me, but the atmosphere was noticeably different. And I completely understand get why it was, and wouldn’t hold it against them — because it was messed up! Really messed up! Unpaid internships are already B.S. without throwing in a random paid intern for no discernible reason. I’m sure there is an explanation, but I never knew what it was.

Now, looking back, I understand the great financial privilege I had coming into this situation. I was getting paid, which put me leaps and bounds ahead of my peers. On top of that, my parents, though middle class (a teacher and a mechanic), were able to financially support me until I got my first paycheck. Because of their support, I was able to take advantage of a great opportunity that many would never be able to afford. I also gained real insight into the discomfort and strain that pay disparities can wreak on relationships with coworkers and friends. Finally, as a result of this experience, I also strongly believe that it’s important to have friends you can be honest and open about money with.

*Not her real name.

Kate is an attorney living in Oklahoma City.

Image via Unsplash 


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