The Cost of an Unpaid Internship: £3000

by alexxxxxandra

After going back to the drawing board and giving up on journalism (See here for more info) I decided to throw myself into my role as Literature Editor for The Stag (University of Surrey’s student newspaper) as this was probably the best it was going to get.

Part of ‘throwing myself in’ was acquiring interviews. Not the easiest thing to do when you’re a 20 year old with no connections. So  I got on to Waterstones, Guildford and asked them to tell me about events coming up with authors. Sure enough the lovely people at Waterstones emailed me confirming that Sarah de Carvalho would be appearing at the store. I did a quick bit of research on Sarah and she sounded cool. Author of 3 books, she’d also founded Happy Child International. Happy Child is a Christian ethos charity which works with street children in Brazil. 

So I emailed her, asking (nay, pleading) for an interview. Charmingly she acquiesced and a week later I was sipping a coffee with her in Costa, Leatherhead.

The interview was a success. Sarah was lovely and answered my questions with enthusiasm. After the interview she asked me a few questions about myself. Surrey offers its students a placement year scheme so I was telling her about this when she asked if I’d secured my placement. I told her I had not. She then asked me what areas I was looking in. At that time, after giving up journalism, I’d been thinking about an arts administration type role. So I told her this.

Then it all got very strange. Her eyes lit up and she began to ask me questions about my competency at an alarming rate. I answered them as best I could and then she gave me the best piece of news. She was looking for an intern to work for her charity Happy Child International and promote her book Solomon’s Song. It was the arts admin based internship I was looking for!

Sarah asked me to send her my CV and covering letter, so I did, that evening. She quickly got back to me offering me a role as an unpaid intern for a year. I was not expecting a paid role and it was 3 days a week giving me a chance to earn some money. Not the best scenario but the best I was going to get. She asked me to meet up with her and her colleague Caroline to finalise these details after Christmas.

Over Christmas I began to have serious doubts about whether this placement was a good idea. How would I live? Would it really look that good on CV? And then I realised I had no idea what the role actually would be… 

I met up with Sarah and Caroline again. That’s when they laid the bombshell on me.

They expected me to start in July 2012 but before that they wanted me to raise £2000 for Happy Child International through events at the university. Caroline said to me, ‘If you can’t do this, I’ll know you’re not serious.’ 

She also wanted me to go to Brazil to see, and I quote, ‘the vision’. I explained that this not financial viable for me and Caroline said I would need to raise the money for my trip as well then. So that’s another grand.

We then went on to discuss working hours and I stipulated that 3 days was the absolute maximum I could do. They seemed disappointed with this. At no point did I get to see a contract. I was not told who my line manager would be and when I asked them to tell me what I would be doing day-to-day they seemed vague answering that some days I would be working from home.

I was then given 2 weeks to decide whether or not I wanted to take up the placement. I was having serious doubts. As a full time student, how the hell was I going to raise 3 grand?

I talked to my tutor and she helped me compile a list of questions to ask Sarah and Caroline via email. Caroline did not get back to me for 10 days, seriously limiting the amount of time I had to decide.

When I eventually received an email back from Caroline; she told me I would be assisting on projects in schools. Something which I have absolutely no experience in. I thought I would be publicising the book and the charity.  The official job title would be Administration Assistant. Even though I asked for one I was still not given a contract.

I was also told I no longer needed to raise the money. Apparently Sarah thought this would be too difficult for me. If this was the case why was I asked to in the first place? 

After asking for detailed Health and Safety precautions in regards to my trip to Brazil, Brazil was immediately taken off the table as well.

I turned down the placement with Happy Child International. Maybe I’m an idiot. But, I feel that being asked to raise 3 grand before even taking up the placement was ridiculous. I also disappointed with the lack of communication between Sarah and Caroline. The nail in the coffin was the amount of time it took Caroline to e-mail me back.

Happy Child International is an amazing charity; I have researched their work and was so impressed with what I saw. However, perhaps they should think hard about how they treat the people in the UK as well as those in Brazil.

This comes at a time when unpaid internships have been met with criticism. I am not opposed to unpaid internships in principle, and would happily take an unpaid one if I could afford and I felt it would be beneficial. However, being asked to essentially pay 3 thousand pounds to work unpaid for a year seemed far too steep for me.

My experience with Happy Child International scared me and opened my eyes to the big, bad world of work experience. If this is how a Christian ethos charity treat their interns I shudder to think how those at less scrupulous companies are treated.

I’m no longer going to do a year’s placement. I want to finish my degree and crack on. And I don’t want to work in Arts Administration. OK so I went to one conference and I didn’t enjoy it. But since then I’ve done some amazing work with The Stag. All I’ve ever wanted is to be a journalist, and you have to stay true to what you really, really want. 

I’ve since been applying for work experience over the summer with magazines, regional newspapers, and when The Guardian opens their internship scheme in 2 days I’m going to apply for that.  Why work for a charity whose principles I’m not sure I agree with in a role I don’t really want?

Only 27 per cent of bylines on the front pages of newspapers are written by women (Centre for Media Literacy) but that’s nearly a third of all front page stories. What it really boils down to is: I want to be in that 27 per cent.