How 14 Former and Current Interns Supported Themselves During Their Internships
by Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Wiebe
I worked as an editorial intern at New York from August 2012 until June 2013, first on the website and then for the print weekly. It’s hard to live on minimum wage — not just in New York, but anywhere in the country, as striking fast food workers have recently and visibly testified. I had a second job during almost my entire internship, bought a couple monthly MetroCards on credit, and relied on my family for health insurance and trips home for the holidays. My parents recently sold the car they once bought me, and passed along that $1,000 — a windfall, really.
Around this time last year, I worked at what can only be called a boutique food court in TriBeCa selling salmon to neighborhood moms who never took their off sunglasses inside and had toddlers named, like, Roman and Luca. I once helped Jake Gyllenhaal find spinach. It paid $12 per hour before tax. That lasted about four months, until I picked up a fifth day at my nymag.com internship and used that to justify quitting my job at the market. Working full-time at New York for little money was worth it to feel a little less like an intern. But by January, I was feeling the pinch and happened to overhear a co-worker at nymag.com, who I knew worked for Jacobin, mention how some favorable press had recently netted more subscriptions than they could process in a timely manner. I offered to help. I’m still managing their subscriptions today. It’s a part-time job that pays a relatively generous wage of $15 per hour. (I currently, very tenuously, freelance for the rest of my income.)
My job at Jacobin plus overtime and article fees at New York supplemented the 40+ hours I worked each week as an intern doing research, fact-checking, reporting and transcribing. In short, working. Would that we weren’t even having this conversation. Hopefully, the sudden and visible end of big-time internships will bring more attention to what most internships really are: jobs without the pay (in dollars!) they deserve.
I have an internship that is paid, but doesn’t pay me until the end of the 15-week program. Along with the 15 hours a week at my internship, I’m taking 18 credits at school this semester, and working an additional 15 hours at my school. The job at my school earns me about $200 every two weeks, and I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who is able to supplement my income.
In order to be able to have my internship and go to school in one of the most expensive cities, I’ve had to scale everything down to basics. I don’t buy new clothes ever, unless something absolutely needs replacement, and I try to cook my own meals as often as I can. Most of my money is spent on my lunches and sparing breakfasts — Subway footlongs are the best because I can buy one for $5.50 for lunch, and save the other half for my dinner. Anything extra I’m able to keep ahold of until the end of the week goes to my MetroCard and random other necessities like toiletries or haircuts, or my phone bill. If I have a few extra bucks Thursday night and I know I’ll be getting paid the next day, I’ll spend what I’ve got left on one (very cheap, house-quality) drink out with friends.
When I had my first internship at a website (Guest of a Guest), I was 22, had zero experience, zero clips, and it was way more valuable for me to get published on GofG (a website with a built-in platform) than it was for them to publish whatever random thing I had in mind that week. Eventually, my writing got noticed (by them, and by the audience) at which point the tables turned and it was more valuable for them to try to keep me than for me to continue writing for them, so they started paying me. If they hadn’t, I would have had the experience, following, and necessary clips to get paid somewhere else.
It’s a matter of doing some thinking and figuring out whether YOU are getting more out of it than the internship/person publishing your work is, or whatever. And often, the INTERNSHIP can easily find other interns, but YOU can’t so easily find whatever thing that internship gives you: experience, credits, clips, connections, an opportunity to prove yourself valuable to the company, etc. If you’re ever in the position where they need you more than you need them, then that’s the time to reevaluate, insist on getting paid, or find something else that does pay. But so often for people who are just starting out, that won’t be the case. I lived in a convent, a real one, where my rent was $350 a month and I tutored and babysat and sold concessions at Webster Hall.
My only secret to staying afloat post-graduation is that I have amazing parents. They luckily were very patient with me and supported me financially while I was trying to break into the magazine industry. They not only paid a lot of money for me to do the Columbia Publishing Course right after I graduated, but supported me after the Course when I was still unable to find a job. I at one time had three internships — all unpaid — in hopes of continuing to build my resume to land a job, so I had no time to even have a part-time job. My parents paid for everything for me, from the train fare to my food.
Originally, I had worked as an unpaid assistant (or possibly intern — my title wasn’t made clear. I didn’t get paid, and I didn’t stick around that summer to see the Playbill) on The Public Theater’s “A Winter’s Tale.” That was when I actually was starving and working a 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. job to filter in a bit of money. For breakfast, I ate bananas (4x$1!), dug deeper into my jar of peanut butter, and would buy a coffee at the cart outside the Public Theater. It took me a week to realize that because they were not paying me, they were totally happy buying my lunch! (ALWAYS ask. The worst you can get is a “Um, no.”) That definitely helped my finances quite a bit.
My second unpaid internship was for a five-time Tony Award winner. My parents were only happy about this because I had a $5,000 loan return that I could live off of, and it seemed as if it was really a start to a “career in the arts.” So they told me that I had a safety net, if needed, and pushed me off a cliff. Through a series of events, I became the only intern. Money started to become tight around the end of my internship, mostly because I had to buy shoes and alter my dress for my sister’s upcoming wedding. But at the end of the internship, they gave me a $1,000 “Thank You” check, which saved my maid of honor look.
My second internship was the fall of 2013, at a very small electronic music PR firm. I worked two afternoons a week while in school full time and it was unpaid and not for credit. My school makes you pay for credits and enroll in an internship class, which you have to attend, I think, every other week and submit assignments/reports on your experience. After doing this over the summer I decided that paying money to do extra work, attend more classes, and have more work was completely idiotic, especially since I didn’t really need the credits. At this point I thought I wanted to go into the music industry, so it seemed worth it to do for the experience and line on my resume. Halfway through the publicist quit and I basically became an unpaid junior publicist overnight. At the end, my boss told me she’d reimburse me for travel and food, which I low-balled at around $300 for four months. It took me about six months of unanswered emails and her “forgetting to put it in the mail because she was rushing to see her mother in the hospital” before I accepted that I was never going to get it.
My current internship is at a blog. I still have a full course load, then come in Thursdays and Fridays and get a $100/week stipend, plus a travel stipend of $5 a day to cover my Metrocard. There’s also an absurd amount of free food, coffee, etc. in the office, which is a great perk. I feel super lucky to have a paid internship, I feel like I captured a New York media unicorn.
I got my first internship ever when I was 20 years old for an arts organization in D.C. It was full-time and unpaid and took place in the summer of 2008. My uncle, already a hero for providing free housing, got me a job as a lifeguard at his health club where his daughter worked. The manager was short on people who wanted to get to work at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I was only free to work on the weekends. This job was really convenient (it was a five-minute walk from the house), but the schedule was a little painful. From what I can remember, lifeguarding paid about $13/hour. I also had some support from my parents ($200/month).
My main expenses were my metro SmartTrip card (around $150/month), groceries ($40/week), and a crazy Starbucks addiction that I did not grow out of until I graduated from college. I took the bus from my uncle’s house to my internship every day and packed my lunch. Ninety percent of the time I took the bus home and watched Comedy Central or Will & Grace on my computer. The other 10 percent of the time I met my friend on the hill for a cheap dinner or to watch Project Runway live. I didn’t turn 21 until the end of my internship, so the inability to go out was wonderful for my budget.
With the exception of my first internship, which only had me working three days a week (I spent the other days/weekends babysitting and sitting in a camp office to make some money), the rest were all five days a week, from 9 to 5 or 10 to 6, meaning there was little time for me to work another job on the side.
Basically, I not only was lucky to have parents who knew how important these internships were and were willing to help me cover my costs, but also to live decently close to NYC on Long Island, so I was therefore able to commute on the LIRR (cheaper than rent, but only barely) in order to save the cost/trouble of living in a sublet for the summer. I did have a small amount of money saved up from previous summers of working — teaching tennis at a camp — and did occasionally babysit on weekends for extra cash, so that helped, but only marginally — just enough that I didn’t feel so bad about buying lunch from the fancy building cafeteria once in awhile.
I studied journalism during my undergrad years at preposterously expensive NYU. While some of my better-financially-endowed friends immediately threw themselves into unpaid internships, I spent my freshman and sophomore years earning generous work-study funds by selling tickets in an on-campus box office. Meanwhile, I was writing and editing for the school newspaper, the Washington Square News.
I saved money on living costs by working as an RA during my junior and senior years, but I still needed income since my parents weren’t bankrolling my New York life. There were countless unpaid internships I would have loved to go after, but I didn’t waste my time. Instead, I embarked on the needle-in-a-haystack task of finding a paid internship. It took several months to find something, but I finally ended up with an interview and internship at Playboy, which is probably the last place I could have imagined myself working. I spent nine months there assisting the literary editor before leaving to find a new paid internship. I spent the fall semester of my senior year unemployed, but I eventually got an interview at New York, which turned into an internship, which turned into a full-time freelance gig, which turned into the staff position I hold to this day.
Jillian C. York:
I did AmeriCorps VISTA for a year after college, because it gave me a loan deferment and $5,000 toward my loans. I worked on fundraising for a small Vermont nonprofit that pairs college student mentors with kids in low-income housing developments. That deferment gave me five years of flexibility… so naturally, I took a job teaching English in Morocco, which gave me enough money to live and enough time to pursue my real passion: writing.
I knew I ultimately wanted to move to New York in order to work in film, so I started out applying to full-time jobs based in New York while I was finishing up my senior year of college and during the summer after graduation. When none of those applications led anywhere, I decided it would be best to stay at home (not like I had the money to go anywhere else) and work a part-time job in order to save money for an eventual move. After working in retail for a few months, I started an unpaid internship while I was at home and not having to worry about expenses like rent and food. I wanted to be doing something film-related so that I could build my resume and hopefully have better luck finding a full-time job down the line. After a year of both part-time and unpaid internship work, an opportunity to live in New York with friends opened up and, having saved up enough money to survive a few months without work, I decided to take it. Several more job applications and interviews later, and I still didn’t have a full-time job. Luckily, I was able to find more part-time work in order to pay rent and the bills.
Internships gave me a proper slap in the face from that vixen they call Reality. I have always been a wanderer. For me, college and internships were zero-risk opportunities to live in new cities, to be anonymous while boosting my resume and expanding my horizons and, yeah probably also finding house parties. Then, the slap came. Money is a thing that people sometimes need to live? Apartments and gas and moving across country and food that’s not cooked by mom all cost money. Luckily, my parents had already agreed to fund my attendance at Northwestern, but I couldn’t fathom asking them to give up their debt-free summers to fund an unpaid or underpaid internship in another city.
So I started considering the options. I’ve always prided myself on making no excuses and helping with finances by having a job in addition to my studies, but due to one professor’s advice that one should always be “the first in the building and the last to leave” at any internship, I knew working a 40+ hour work week and trying to maintain a summer job all in a brand new city might end with me freebasing coffee to keep up with the demand. There is no such thing as a 9–5 internship; for me, internships always started early in the morning and ended late in the night with extra research or writing to try to impress the higher ups. Scholarships were another option, but trying to shoulder Northwestern’s quarter system with its unending midterms, plus a work-study job, positions at two periodicals, applying to internships and trying to watch all of the “Rock of Love” episodes left me with little time to search for and apply to scholarships.
Eventually, I accepted my fate and started searching for internships close to my parents’ house in Cincinnati. The decision had its definite pros and unfortunate cons. With three younger brothers and a larger-than-average extended family, being able to live at home was a joy. I went to baseball games that I would have normally missed, I ate mom’s killer enchiladas, dad grilled out, I had access to a pool and I didn’t once have to worry about saving money. Quality of life-wise, it was a win. But then there’s the professional outlook. I loved my internship at Cincinnati Magazine and the now-defunct Cincinnati branch of Allied Integrated Marketing led to an internship at the Chicago office (which I was able to afford by working twice a week during the school year), but I certainly didn’t make the same professional connections that I might have enjoyed with a journalism internship in New York.
Looking back now, do I wish that I had been able to experience an internship at one of the larger journalism giants in New York City? Sure, what aspiring journalist wouldn’t? I was lucky to have a supportive family who helped me out while I worked at home over summers at the best internships I could find in the area.
I moved to NYC for my first unpaid internship after my sophomore year of college because I felt like it was the only other option besides moving back to my tiny Midwest town for the summer, which was, in my mind, an absolutely unbearable alternative. I was young and dumb. We paid for housing out of my college savings account (about 1.5 months in NYU dorms), and I wasted my money on bagels and orange juice. I wish I’d gotten another job — I felt like a waste the whole summer, and hardly ever left my dorm room. In retrospect, I paid for my internship with my mental health, because I just felt so overwhelmed by options and “what I was supposed to do” as a budding journalist, and couldn’t figure out how to find a paid job in my free time.
The next summer, I was lucky enough to score an internship through Time Inc.’s summer program, which not only paid for housing (!!!), but also $10/hour in a model every major publishing company should emulate. I was lucky enough to not only build up my savings account — as an intern! In something besides finance! — but enjoy many a round at the terribly trashy, super super cheap, tragically-deceased Cooper 35 Asian Pub.
Three thousand bucks sounds like a ton of money when you’re 19 and moving to New York for the first time. My alma mater is proud of two things: its mascot and its dedication to “connect a liberal arts degree to professional opportunities and graduate study,” so as long as you took a handful of workshops between freshman and junior year and found an internship, they’d hand you a check for 3,000 bucks for you to use, no questions asked, during an internship the summer before your senior year. If your internship was unpaid, they’d give you all of the $3,000; if you were paid but made less than that, they’d cut you a check for the difference. It’s a college thing that you don’t realize how cool it is until after you graduate, when you’re deciding whether to donate to the college or buy some tacos. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without it.
The subtext in my applications was a strong “YOU DON’T EVEN HAVE TO PAY ME. JUST PICK ME.” I applied to 26 magazines. I heard back from two. The magazine I chose paid, so I worked out the approximate number of hours I’d be working with the coordinator and I left school with $900, the most money I’d ever had. After paying my first month’s rent, I arrived to an 1.5 bedroom apartment in Fort Greene with about $300 of it, all I had to live on until my first paycheck, three weeks later. I didn’t know MetroCards were so expensive.
Two pay cycles after, I went to reception to pick up my paycheck; they gave me two, for varying fees, but for the same pay period. I’d seen too many subway ads describing the way people’s banks have fucked them over (open a checking account with New York Bank of Life today!) so I was afraid to deposit both. I sent a quick email to the payroll lady while I thought about what the other check could be for; I threw a penny in a fountain the day before and wished for “nothing but the best.”
I’d co-written an article that ended up in the magazine a week before, and was still high off of the glee. The woman replied to me: “It’s an article fee. It’s yours.”
The magazine let me write, then paid me for it? I almost didn’t return to school. I did, I graduated, and I came back to the magazine, and to a job.
Jazmine Hughes is an online producer for New York magazine. She is also a writer and avid eater.
Jamie Wiebe lives in Astoria. Here is her Twitter.
Photo: Juhan Sonin
Support The Billfold