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Unpaid interns struggle to make ends meet

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Months after graduating with honors from Northwestern University, Jeannie Vanasco began receiving food stamps and Medicaid. She had a full-time position at a prestigious literary magazine in New York City, but she was an unpaid intern.

"During my senior year, I thought there's no way I'll ever take an unpaid internship," says Ms. Vanasco, who depended on a full scholarship to attend college. But after looking at the paying alternatives, she reconsidered her pledge. "I knew I could get a paid job, but all of them seemed so dreary, and [publishing] is what I went to college for," explains Vanasco, a creative-writing major.

The problem was that most entry-level publishing positions were unpaid. To prepare for her internship, Vanasco spent the summer of 2006 working three jobs and lived in a "really disgusting apartment with all these filthy college boys." Despite her efforts, rent for the first few months consumed her savings. Not wanting to burden her mother, a librarian making minimum wage, she applied for government assistance.

Internships are steadily becoming – if not already – an institutionalized part of the college experience and a requisite for entry-level work. Though internships offer undeniable benefits, workplace experts are questioning the fairness of unpaid or extremely low-paying internships.

"Unpaid internships are certainly available or certainly commonplace," says Mark Oldman, coauthor of numerous internship guides and cofounder of Vault Inc., a career counseling company. According to a survey conducted by his firm last year, 36 percent of students said they were not paid for their internships.

Intern remuneration varies largely depending on the industry. Fields like computer programming or engineering are much more likely to offer interns compensation, sometimes in excess of $25 per hour.

"Glamour industries" such as television, publishing, and politics are notorious for offering unpaid or low-paying internships. In an article for Slate.com, Sonia Smith used the 2005 edition of the Princeton Review "Internship Bible" to calculate that 62 percent of television internships, 52 percent of magazine internships, and 54 percent of political and public-policy internships were unpaid.

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