Pressure on companies to provide academic credit may limit some students’ internship options

by Grace Ballenger ’17, Contributing Writer

Wellesley, like a number of colleges and universities, doesn’t accept academic credit for internships, limiting students’ options in industries that are facing increased pressure to compensate their student employees. In order to avoid the violation of fair labor laws, some companies will hire interns only if they receive academic credit.

“The CWS does not always accept credits from other institutions because we want to make sure that credits meet Wellesley’s academic standards,” said Salwa Nur Muhammad, the program director of internships at Wellesley’s Center for Work and Service (CWS).

This may create problems for students who receive internship offers from employers under the stipulation that the students will receive credit from their colleges. Jayne Yan ’16 could not take an internship with a wealth management firm this summer because the company required that she receive credit for the internship.

Some employers will hire interns if they are funded by grant money. Although the College does provide some funding for unpaid internships, the process is competitive. Alternatively, students can request the CWS to provide an employer with an official explanation of Wellesley’s policy.

Requiring companies to compensate students for their work as interns has become the subject of national debate lately, as the economic downturn has increased financial strain on students who take unpaid positions. Some interns have sued companies in high profile lawsuits, arguing that they should be compensated for the work they did during their internships.

The U.S. Department of Labor has released its own guidelines for defining when a company can offer an unpaid internship. These guidelines specify that the internship must provide educational-type learning that benefits the intern and provide new positions for new interns that don’t displace employees. Such internships also must not give the employer an immediate advantage and must be established in a situation where the employer and the intern understand that the internship is unpaid, and does not necessarily lead to a job.

Professor Maurizio Viano, co-director of the Cinema and Media Studies Department, believes the College not giving credit for unpaid internships is a serious obstacle to students getting internships. However, he and other professors have found ways around the College’s official policy.

“Wellesley College does not give credits for internships, but it is not unheard of that some professors find ways of incorporating the work students do in internships into independent studies and therefore give credit,” Viano said.
Before accepting an internship, a student may talk with a professor about the possibility of using an internship as a way to launch a 250 or 350 credit-bearing, independent research course. However, the CWS prefers that students use this method only as a last resort, and instead recommends that students arrange for a no-credit letter explaining the College’s policy to be sent to their potential employer. Often, this will persuade employers to accept Wellesley candidates. As another option, students may apply for CWS funding for internships, which allows employers to hire the student as an unpaid intern without violating labor laws.

According to Muhammad, the rate of accepted students is usually around 33 percent, although it varies from year to year. The number of grants that Wellesley provides for unpaid internships also varies. Last year the CWS gave out 175 grants for both international and domestic internships. The CWS awards $5,000 in grants for Global Engagement internships and $3,500 in grants for domestic internships. The rest of the grants are funded by academic departments. In total, the College funds an estimated 300 internships each year.

Because students who have never received grant money are given priority, many students who have already received funding cannot rely on being awarded another grant.

Donors supply the money, which is then invested to earn a regular return. Every year, the College spends a certain percentage of its investment returns on internship grants. Therefore the amount of money available to students is tied to the performance of the overall endowment.

Wellesley students may receive funding from the CWS for two summers, from two different programs. In addition, there are a few students who have had problems getting funding because of the strict guidelines for the types of internships that are eligible for funding through various CWS grants.

Molly Petrey ’15 is one student who could not use Wellesley funding for an internship because the only grant that would have fit her internship was the Women in Government Grant, and it can only be awarded to Wellesley students who will work directly for female elected officials.

“The attorney I was working for was a woman, but she was an assistant district attorney, which is an appointed, not an elected, position,” Petrey said.

The competitiveness of the funding for internships programs can be a particular problem for low income students who are considering unpaid internships.

Kaley Haskell ’14 explained that she can only afford to take on internships that provide housing or a stipend for housing and living.

“Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to go home, even if there may not be as many opportunities,” Haskell said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to work in retail.”

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