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  • How One University Makes Unpaid Internships Pay Off for Students

    December 12, 2018 | By NACE Staff


    TAGS: best practices, internships, nace insights

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    While internships offer a valuable introduction into the world of work, some internships go unpaid, leaving students who can’t afford a summer without an income to miss out on the work experience employers value and look for in new hires.  

    At Texas Christian University (TCU), however, unpaid internships offer an opportunity for students to meet community leaders and work side by side with entrepreneurs, according to John Thompson, TCU’s assistant to the vice chancellor of student affairs. Students taking a low-paying or unpaid internship can qualify for the university’s five-year-old Internship Scholarship Funding Program, which pays them $500 to $6,000 during their internships. 

    “I am using unpaid internships to get wider and more substantive internships,” says Thompson.  

    Internships are available for students from all majors and disciplines who are sophomores, juniors, or seniors. The program purposely does not set grade-point standards to be eligible for the scholarship. To qualify for the program, the unpaid internship must provide the student with the traditional qualifications of a paid internship, such as substantial learning opportunities and significant career exploration; in addition, it must take place at the organization’s work site and be supervised to ensure it is an educational experience.

    Having this scholarship means that every student, regardless of major, can gain work experience, according to Thompson. The program is funded through TCU’s donor development program and through funds provided by financial aid. TCU is in the process of raising permanent endowment funding to provide up to $500,000 a year.  

    “We have had more than 1,200 students in the program and we have 1,200 stories to tell,” he says.  

    Nonprofits, government entities, and start-up companies with fewer than 150 employees are welcome to recruit interns under the scholarship program, as are organizations that traditionally do not pay interns, such as those in the fine arts, social services, and politics. Alumni-owned companies in all categories are preferred. 

    “We have partnered with United Way agencies, fine arts groups, and other nonprofits to provide them interns in return for meaningful experiences that include mentoring supervision and contact with board members of the nonprofits,” Thompson says. “Nonprofit board members are typically going to be community leaders, which puts our students in front of them.  

    “We have also entered agreements with [the Tech Fort Worth organization, which] works with entrepreneurial ventures, including start-ups and growing companies. The students working in these get the full effect of starting their own companies and undertake all the related tasks, including going before venture capitalists for funding.

    “In other words, if you have an intentional unpaid internship program, you can give students a lot of wonderful and meaningful experiences,” Thompson says. “For the naysayers about unpaid internships, talk to my five students who have interned with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the dozens of others who have worked for art museums, food banks, and other organizations that impact people every day. Add to this the start-ups and less-than-a-year-old companies that have used interns to help them get to the next level in their development. At some point, they will provide paid internships. These partnerships help get the university into the community in a meaningful way and can make a difference.” 

    Students report that the experience gained enabled them to do things that they might not have had the opportunity to do, Thompson says. For example, one student found a career in social media after completing an internship in a South African game preserve, where he was responsible for sending on-the-spot messages globally. 

    “I would love to see more schools engage in this kind of program for their students,” Thompson says. “It really is a win-win-win situation, but it has to be intentional and takes some effort. Projecting the university and the students on a personal level into the life of the community is one of our higher callings.” 


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