The government department should no longer require students participate in internships

Makenna Jonker

Internships can be a great way to gain hands-on experience and network. They can act as a stepping stone into the professional world. The catch is, of course, that most internships are unpaid.

In 2018, approximately 60% of all internships were unpaid. Given that a number of political internships are at nonprofits, this percentage is likely much higher for government majors.

UT’s Department of Government, however, requires all students under the 2018-2020 catalogue complete one internship or one research apprenticeship. Students must spend 9-12 hours interning or conducting research each week to receive credit. Moreover, because internships and research count as a class, students must pay tuition in order to receive course credit, effectively making students pay to partake in unpaid work.

The Department of Government either needs to revert back to the format of previous catalogues, in which an internship credit was optional, or guarantee financial assistance to students working these internships. 

“The general thought is that students gain some more practical, professional experience in addition to more typical courses, so that’s why we made it a requirement in 2018,” said David Stauffer, government professor and faculty advisor.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, around half of all internships were canceled in the spring semester. It is still unclear how the pandemic will impact fall internships, but there is a possibility of fewer internships.

For some students, however, taking part in unpaid internships poses too great of a financial barrier. Not every student has the financial leeway to spend their time working for free, especially given recent job losses due to the pandemic.

“Just to support me going to college, my mom works overtime at a hospital in Houston six nights a week and I also work a part-time job while I'm at UT,” government and rhetoric sophomore Alexis Stonestreet said.

Low-income students are more likely to work full-time than those who are high-income, which has been proven to negatively affect grades. Adding an internship onto these already loaded schedules can further harm a student’s GPA.

“For lower-income students who are going into grad and law schools, GPA is very heavily considered and can either make or break your acceptance,” Stonestreet said. “Taking extra time away when you're already working a part-time job to do an unpaid internship that usually you don't learn that much from just isn't fair.” 

For students who are taking part in unpaid internships, course credit is given in lieu of payment. UT must find a way to provide financial assistance to these students who are engaged in unpaid internships.

Stauffer said UT is open to being flexible this fall, if necessary, but doesn’t want to make decisions without careful consideration. 

Internships are likely to look quite different in the fall, and may not be the best opportunity for students seeking experience.

“Experience is good if you can get it, but students shouldn't have to feel like it's required,” Stonestreet said.

When the government department begins formulating the 2020-2022 catalogue, it should consider making the internship requirement optional again or find a way to offer students financial compensation.

“Every now and then we reconsider the entire undergraduate curriculum, and when that happens, we’ll look at how it’s gone on as a requirement,” Stauffer said.

It is unclear how the department determines which students they will speak with about their experience with the internship course, but low-income students must be included in that conversation. 

Furthermore, the department must look into the effects COVID-19 has had on 2018-2020 catalogue majors’ degree plans, especially in regards to the internship requirement.

If the government department continues to require students to earn internship or research apprenticeship credit, they must offer financial assistance to their students.

Jonker is a government and American studies senior from Flower Mound, Texas.