Credit to Nowhere: The Problem With Unpaid Internships

Over the summer I worked my dream job. Sadly my dream job didn’t pay me. Let me clarify: I am a double major of English and Film, by pursuing this degree I hope to become a television screenwriter. The the system of achieving a career in film and television is very specific and focused. Throughout college, you intern during the summer, through internships you make connections who, post-grad, can hopefully help you establish yourself as an assistant. From there, the path is from personal assistant to staff writer and, if you’re good enough, someday creator and showrunner. Essentially, this is a process that takes place over the course of five to ten years.

It can sound long and arduous, I know, but I’m passionate about television writing and know that for me this would not only be a career but something I would thoroughly enjoy working as. Rewinding back to internship, this year I was worked hard enough, and was lucky enough, to be selected for a literary internship at a small production company in Los Angeles. The job was amazing, the company nurturing and perfectly suited for my learning experience. Amazing in every way except one: it was unpaid.

Using unpaid internships is not a rare practice within the film industry. In fact, it is one of the only areas which can still legally hire interns on an unpaid basis, under the stipulation that in exchange the student or intern still must have an alternate reward. In most cases an unpaid internship are rebranded as a working relationship in turn for the infamous school credit. Out of recurring lawsuits, labor laws surrounding unpaid internships are fairly rigid. For the exchange of credit a student is given basic training and experience under the condition that if not paid by money they will be provided school credit.

Fair, right? In concept it seems relatively understandable, in action it’s frustratingly maddening. Though Wheaton provides a stipend of $3,000 for students working with unpaid programs I was not able to apply for this. Unfortunately for me, the same day applications for the stipend were due was also the day before I would even find out if I’d gotten the internship. So, instead I was directed to the WIC program, the Wheaton Internship Credit program specifically in place for the acceptance of internship credit. The second strike against me was that here at Wheaton, internship credit goes nowhere except on a transcript, the credit given does not count towards graduation credits, and in essence is nothing more than a formality to allow a student to receive credit to nowhere. Though timing is key in my case, and luck in having a support system in Los Angeles, I still think of the process I had to go through for a program I would receive no payment for my work. Not from my school, whose hands were tied, or job which tained me but couldn’t afford to may me. Overall, I believe this unsustainable model needs to change. It may be years before the film industry gives up the archaic process of unpaid labor, but in the meantime, I believe the credit earned by students like myself, unable to apply for the stipend, should be put to some use so our hard work isn’t taken advantage of twice over.