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Musings from an unpaid intern

I recently asked a friend how she was doing. In not-so-typical Duke fashion, she—a philosophy and literature student—gave me a mouthful of a response. She told me about upcoming consulting interviews and described her sense of anxiety as being caused by a capitalistic system that values human beings for their economic output. Those who don’t produce become alienated within the system, according to her.

Exaggerated and a bit tongue-in-cheek, yes, but this sort of bemoaning comes at a time a poor economy accentuates the inherent risks of transitioning out of college into adulthood.

For a generation that was described as over-pruned by helicopter moms (or Tiger moms), for many of us who went off to college like it was our birthright, who continued to harbor a sense of boundless opportunity as we designed DukeEngage programs, joined club sports, went to New Orleans for Fall break community service, the reality of collective economic hardship is a hard thing to accept.

Having had my share of Duke-brochure-worthy whirlwind adventures abroad (thanks DukeEngage and Global Semester Abroad), I spent last summer performing an unpaid internship at a political blog in New York City, thankfully and necessarily on Duke’s dime. Working in the blogosphere kept me hyperaware of the global financial instability reaching Wall Street, Asia, the euro zone. It was a summer of lackluster jobs reports, an unyielding unemployment rate, a mess of numbers both depersonalizing and adding to the sense of general dread. Columnists referred to our generation as the “lost generation.” I dutifully logged away news reports about unemployment immediately after college graduation affecting wages for coming decades, probably read by many of us and filed away into our subconscious.

That summer, surrounded by other Duke peers—some trudging to Wall Street every morning, even weekends—I felt for the first time the sharp distinctions that our choices can create. We are constantly defined by the opportunities we pursue and don’t pursue. As an unpaid intern in Manhattan, I spent a summer of relative material lack, surrounded by Duke peers who were having the opposite experience. By virtue of my unpaid, non-finance internship, I was a have-not for a summer. Other interns were demonstratively haves, happily benefitting from the culture of largesse in the corporate world: free daily meals, reimbursed taxi rides, bottle service provided for by their 20 or 30-something frat-boy-at-heart bosses, etc. Despite the drawbacks of being an unpaid intern, such as living in triple dorm without air conditioning in a building that was known to be haunted, watching muscle churn into fat after days perched in front of a computer punctuated only by $1 pizza breaks, this was the most real experience of my life. I always wondered if the desire to “Keep Up with the Joneses”—a human psychological affliction said to reach Bangladesh villagers living on less than a dollar a day and comparing each other’s huts to New England, Ivy League-educated yuppies comparing flat screen TV’s—is a real, nagging voice in our heads existing in perpetuity. It turns out that it is, but it’s not really the driving force of my life. Exercising the autonomy to make my own choices, fulfill my curiosities and to accept triumphs and disappointments as they come was always the more urgent business at hand.

A caveat is that exercising that autonomy doesn’t always lead to unconventional or service-oriented routes like the Peace Corps. Also, the outcome of your own choices isn’t always favorable.

I had figured that a perk to being an unpaid intern would be some sort of spiritual satisfaction with the work, as if there had to be some rightful karmic balance in the world that guaranteed this to make up for the unpaid aspect. Turns out that life works in a chaotic way, because there were definitely days I didn’t enjoy my internship. Horrified and logging in 10-hour days, I described my experience to friends as “an early mid-life crisis” (quarter life crisis). Over weekends, I connected with other Duke interns and talked about work, went to bars and clubs, looked forward to upcoming weekends before the next week started. It felt like a slice of what real adult life might be.

The question “What do you want to do after you graduate?” will probably be more of a pleasant pleasantry in the Spring. Despite the greater risks involved—instead of a bad internship experience, you could end up with a bad job; instead of a summer without an internship, you could end up officially unemployed, ect. The choices are ours to make. And that in itself seems like a small reason for celebration.

Jessica Kim is a Trinty senior. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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