Part 1: As the world interns: The impact of ide…Entry Level Internships | Internships for Students

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A Dissertation Presented by Amanda Chase
to The Faculty of the Graduate College of The University of Vermont


Internships have become a critical credential for employment, and college students with internship experience reap significant gains compared to their non-interning peers. Students who have engaged in internships are more likely to find work postgraduation, earn higher starting salaries, have better retention and engagement while still in college, and are more engaged in their workplaces many years after their internship experience has concluded. Companies who hire interns benefit from a steady pipeline of new talent, cost-savings in the hiring process, and employees who stay longer and are more engaged. Despite the significant advantages of internships, limited information exists about the overall prevalence, the legal parameters, and even the exact definition of an internship. Perhaps most conspicuously absent is a discussion about access to internship opportunities. Are internships an option for all undergraduate students? Do all students engage in internships at the same rate, regardless of the student’s income level, family connections, or other aspects of their identity?

The current study examined the identities and cultural, social, and economic capital held by University of Vermont undergraduates who participate in internships, compared to the identities and cultural, social, and economic capital of non-interning students. This ex post facto study uses 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement responses from senior students the University of Vermont, as well as institutional data. A t-test and chi square analysis were used to compare means of interning and non-interning
groups, and five binary logistic regression analyses were used to predict internship participation.

Several factors significantly differed between interning and non-interning students. While all five regression models significantly predicted internship engagement, low statistical power limits the real-world significance of regression results. GPA and state residence were the most salient individual predictors of internship participation, demonstrating that for every 1.0 increase in GPA a student was 2.74 times more likely to engage in an internship, and that students from out of state were 2.20 times more likely to intern compared to participants from the state of Vermont. Explanations for the results are offered as well as implications for policy and practice to develop more equitable internship participation amongst all students.


When conducting research, it is essential to remember that our participants are real people, and that our analysis elucidates important aspects of their experiences. I begin this dissertation with an illustration of two students whose journeys personify the focus of my research.

1.1. Reflections from my Desk: Gloria and Marcus

In my role as the internship coordinator and a career counselor at the University of Vermont (UVM), I worked with a student named Gloria*, who was seeking an internship. Gloria was a history major and had just returned from Glasgow, Scotland, where she had spent the summer abroad. She loved her experience working and traveling internationally and told me that she learned about another country and culture while also gaining valuable professional skills. Gloria worked as an unpaid intern with one of Glasgow’s Business Improvement Districts (BID). Now in the fall semester of her senior year, Gloria was seeking another internship to further strengthen her resume before she graduated. I worked with Gloria as she prepared her application for an internship in Burlington Vermont’s Church Street Marketplace. Burlington’s own BID needed an intern, and Gloria’s closely-related experience in a major international city made her a strong candidate for the position. The Church Street Marketplace internship paid twelve
dollars an hour, which would be a welcome bonus for Gloria (many other internships do not offer compensation). Once Gloria had a second internship with a focus on BIDs, she would be a strong candidate for full-time jobs in this field.

Gloria’s experience in Scotland strategically positioned her to gain subsequent valuable experience. However, Gloria’s internship in Scotland was not something that happened by chance. Gloria registered for her internship placement through a private company that matches students to internships all over the world. With financial support from her parents, Gloria paid the internship placement company to connect her with the 12-week internship at the Business Improvement District in Glasgow. The internship did not and cannot offer compensation for students’ work in this program, since international interns lack necessary work visas to be paid. Gloria also had to pay out-of-pocket for her flights to and from Scotland, and for 12 weeks of housing, meals, and commuting costs. A 2015 New York Times article profiled an American student doing a similar internship in Edinburgh, which cost the student a total of $16,000 for a ten-week work experience (Greenhouse, 2015). I suspect that Gloria incurred similar costs for her international internship.

When I asked Gloria what had contributed to her career success thus far, she did acknowledge that she was lucky to have her experience in Scotland. She also explained that she had worked hard at her internship and been particularly savvy with her networking skills. Though she may not recognize or acknowledge it, Gloria’s upper middle-class background likely set her up for success, too. Her parents were both college educated and helped guide her through her undergraduate experience, and she developed the ability to navigate educational and workplace systems in ways that benefitted her greatly.

In contrast to Gloria, I also worked with a student named Marcus**, a sophomore chemistry major who was the first in his family to attend college. Marcus grew up in a small, working-class city in Vermont that never quite rebounded from its industrial decline in the 1950s. Marcus achieved high grades in his small high school of 330 students. He is academically inclined, though he did not have the opportunity to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school, because his district did not offer any. He enjoyed his high school chemistry class and received high grades, making it a natural choice for him to major in chemistry in college.

Upon entering UVM, Marcus struggled in college-level courses. His underfunded high school had not prepared him as well as the high schools of his peers, and he was surprised by the rigor of his classes. Many of Marcus’ classmates had already taken AP Chemistry in high school, but Marcus did not have the same foundations in the subject.

As a first-generation college student (meaning that neither of his parents had the experience of going to college), Marcus also was not familiar with some potentially helpful campus resources, like free tutoring, his professors’ office hours, or the on-campus writing center. On top of difficult coursework, Marcus also had a work-study job through his financial aid package. He worked ten hours a week in a school dining hall, serving food and washing dishes. On weekends, he often picked up an eight-hour shift at Lowe’s, where he had previously worked as a high school student. The extra money helped Marcus pay for his gas and textbooks.

Marcus told me that he was just managing to scrape by academically and financially. Had he more time, he said he would be interested in participating in extracurricular activities, like intramural basketball or the debate union. Other activities of interest like the “ChemCats” club or the Biochemistry Society would help Marcus with his professional development by giving him access to mentoring and strong experience to list on his resume. However, Marcus did not have anyone to guide him to these potentially helpful groups, and even if he had wanted to join, he needed to spend all of his free time studying in order to pass his classes.

Marcus was also interested in pursuing a chemistry internship or research opportunity, but they are extremely competitive and often unpaid. Many of the internships and research positions also require recommendation letters. Marcus’ supervisor in the dining hall would be willing to write him a recommendation, but this would not hold as much weight as a recommendation from a professor. Because Marcus’ classes are all greater than 50 students, he has not yet developed a close relationship with any faculty, nor has he had the time to meet his professors in their office hours. Marcus was not even aware that I was available as a resource until he overheard someone talking about the “internship coordinator,” and this was well into his sophomore year.

I met Marcus as he was preparing his internship application for a local laboratory that provides drug testing services. The internship is one of the few chemistry-related opportunities in our area, and one of the only ones that is paid. Marcus had never applied to a professional position before, and needed significant support to write a resume, craft a cover letter, and prepare for an interview. He was nervous about coming to the Career Center’s drop-in hours and seemed intimidated about asking for help. Marcus and I talked about how to anticipate and assertively answer interview questions, how he should introduce himself, what clothes to wear to his interview, and how to present a firm handshake.

Though Marcus was an intelligent, earnest, and hardworking student, I knew that his chances of receiving an internship offer were slim. Other peers applying for this internship would likely have higher grades, better recommendations, prior experience, more networking connections, and higher levels of confidence than Marcus.

Though Gloria and Marcus are both hardworking, intelligent students at the same institution, they have had very different access to career development opportunities and will likely have very different experiences navigating the professional world after graduation. Gloria will be a strong candidate who will stand out in a job search. Marcus will be one in a sea of Marcuses: a student with a college degree, average grades, and minimal extracurricular involvement.

Most students do not have access to the types of resources and experiences that Gloria has had. Although hers is a glowing example of student internship success, most students would never be able to afford that opportunity. The sad reality is that not only will most other students never have the chance to gain that kind of international internship experience, but they also would not be able to compete with the other Glorias of the world. Another student could have benefitted from the internship at the Church Street Marketplace and may have desperately needed one of the few paid internship opportunities available, but they would not have been able to offer the employer the same kind of skills or experiences on their resume. Gloria’s circumstance is an example of the compounding effects of internship inequity, where privilege begets privilege.

In short, though internships provide useful experience and employment advantages, participation may be limited to those with the economic and social means to pursue them. This dissertation seeks to examine the differences in identities and cultural, economic, and social capital between students who intern compared to those who do not. When comparing students with internship experience against those without internship experience, are there significant differences in cultural, economic, and social capital, or differences in the identities held by the two groups? In essence, who participates in internships?

* Gloria is a pseudonym, with her experience being an amalgamation of several students with whom I have worked.
**Marcus is a pseudonym, with his experience being an amalgamation of several students with whom I have worked.

1.2. Background

In the novella, Beasts, one of Joyce Carol Oates’ characters makes the derisive observation that “the distinction between ‘assistant’ and ‘intern’ is a simple one: assistants are paid, interns are not. But of course interns are paid, in experience” (2003). Despite the fact that this remark discounts the genuine learning that can happen in an internship setting, the character has a valid point: The concept of an internship (especially an unpaid one) is murky. Yet, as a society we have come to expect that the most low-ranking workers should make significant sacrifices, like foregoing a paycheck, just to get a foot in the door.

Internships are just one way that students can gain valuable experience while still in college. In addition to pursuing academic learning within the classroom, college students are frequently encouraged by their parents, faculty, and other college personnel to engage in experiential education opportunities that happen outside of the confines of the university. Activities like research, study abroad, service learning, and internships complement theoretical learning, and can provide students with the opportunity to put
their abstract knowledge into practice (Kuh, 2008). Internships in particular are a type of experience that has exploded in popularity over the last three decades, with students, universities, and employers all highlighting the importance of this type of involvement. Internships started to expand after the economic crash in 2008, with websites emerging like “The Intern Queen” (Berger, 2017), run by a student touting 15 internship experiences over a four-year period. The media hypes the importance of the summer internship, and online publications produce articles with urgent titles such as, “College Students: You Simply Must Do an Internship (Better Yet: Multiple Internships)!”(Hansen, 2009) and “Starting College? Think About Internships Now” (Merisotis, 2018).

An internship is becoming a more and more critical credential, with most employers wanting their new hires to have completed at least one internship before beginning an entry-level job (National Association for Colleges and Employers, 2016). Recent graduates with collegiate internship experience are more likely to find work and command higher starting salaries, demonstrating the fundamental importance of these experiences (Day, 2016; Sagen, Dallam, & Laverty, 2000).

Despite the emphasis on internships, limited information exists about the overall prevalence, the legal parameters, and even the exact definition of an internship. Perhaps most conspicuously absent is a discussion about access to internship opportunities. That is to say, are internships an option for all undergraduate students? Do all students engage in internships at the same rate, regardless of students’ income levels, family connections, or other aspects of their identities? Questions of internship access and equity have rarely been discussed in prior research. As many employers, colleges, students, and even parents push for internships and emphasize the crucial nature of these experiences, each of these groups must ask the question: Do all students participate in these opportunities equally?

1.3. Study Rationale and Significance

This topic holds significance for several constituent groups. At this moment, internships are heavily promoted by both universities and employers. Indeed, the university created my current professional role in 2013 because of an increased focus on internships. Students and parents also eagerly seek internship opportunities, understanding the importance of this kind of experience in the post-graduate job search. From a regulatory and policy perspective, internships have mostly avoided scrutiny. Unpaid internships have been challenged in several dozen court cases (Suen & Brandeisky, 2014), but the number of lawsuits is almost negligible considering that experts estimate 50-75% of all college students (or upwards of 13 million students) complete an internship during their undergraduate experience (National Association for Colleges and Employers, 2016; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2015b; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2017; Perlin, 2012; Saltikoff, 2017).

Few studies have examined inequities of internships, and indeed, the lack of scrutiny may be what allows an inequitable system to flourish. Frenette (2013) noted that a degree of ambiguity “plays an important role in producing and maintaining the intern economy” (p. 364). Several opinion and newspaper articles have attempted to call attention to inequity in internships (Broadbridge & Fielden, 2015; Gamerman, 2006; Greenhouse, 2015; Harrington, 2018; Noah & Glaser, 2009; Shellenbarger, 2009), but few peer reviewed articles exist on the topic (Allen, Quinn, Hollingworth, & Rose, 2013; Bathmaker, Ingram, & Waller, 2013; Burke & Carton, 2013; Grant-Smith & McDonald, 2017; O’Connor & Bodicoat, 2017; Siebert & Wilson, 2013).

1.4. Researcher Positionality

My academic and professional interests have always focused on students’ significant life transitions, and the support and preparation that help students adjust to those changes. While earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Hamilton College, I conducted a senior research thesis on how undergraduates’ participation in Hamilton’s wilderness pre-orientation trips affect student adjustment to college. I later pursued my master’s degree in counseling at the University of Vermont, aiming to bolster my applied skills in supporting students through challenging life transitions. My professional work in school counseling, followed by college admissions, and now career counseling/internship coordination has all continued to center on working with students through significant life changes. I work with students as they prepare for, and then undergo transitions to the working world. I view my efforts on internships as a tool that can help ease students’ progression into professional work.

I recognize that much of my own professional success is a direct result of the opportunities that I have had access to, and I want to ensure that kind of access for all. I have been able to explore and test many of my professional and educational interests through experiential education opportunities like research and an internship, which I believe set me up to succeed professionally and personally. Though it was not a traditional internship, I served as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) in high school and college. This unpaid position allowed me to gain skills, bolster my resume, and test out a field in which I was interested. I now realize that volunteering as an EMT likely saved me from taking errant steps toward a lifelong career in healthcare. I had the privilege of exploring a career path and then deciding that it was not for me. Another internship, this one minimally paid, allowed me to help run Hamilton College’s wilderness pre-orientation program one summer. Whereas EMT work helped me understand what I did not want to do professionally, the wilderness pre-orientation internship clarified my interests in working with young adults during times of transition.

I recognize that a large part of why I was able to pursue these internship opportunities is because of my socioeconomic circumstances. My parents supported me financially while I was in college, which provided me with ample time and energy to explore and evaluate my interests. Going back to my introduction, I was more of a Gloria than a Marcus: I could consider every opportunity a viable option, whether or not it was paid.

Though some of the social identities I hold (like being a woman and being gay) may put me in a marginalized position in society, by and large I hold privileged identities that bestow on me advantages in the world: I am a White, cisgender, married, able bodied, non-religious American who holds a master’s degree and who grew up in an upper-middleclass household where education was of utmost importance. The identities and experiences I hold all influence my research perspectives and values.

My fundamental beliefs that shape my views primarily connect to human potential and education. I believe that all people have value and can contribute to society and the common good. I believe that education is a right that all people should have access to in order to maximize their abilities and contributions to society, and that social justice is the method for how society can value all people and ensure that everyone has access to what they need to thrive.

As I began to explain in the beginning of Chapter One, my professional role as the University of Vermont’s internship coordinator also influences my research perspectives. I have served in my position since 2013 and during that time I have worked with hundreds of students and alums in a career counselor capacity. Many of those people met with me to find and secure internship opportunities. Another part of my position is setting up internship processes and procedures across the University and beyond: I advise faculty who teach academic internship courses, confer with risk management and legal professionals, and consult with internship colleagues at other universities across the United States as we develop programs and best practices. I also work directly with employers who seek to establish internship programs and recruit students.

As part of my professional role, I have also had the opportunity to develop an internship scholarship program that provides funding for students who do unpaid summer internships. Each year I read dozens of scholarship applications from students interested in pursuing meaningful, career-relevant professional opportunities, but who state that they cannot afford to forego a salary and pay for housing, food, and transportation costs out-of-pocket. The university is lucky to have funding to award about 50 scholarships each year, though there still are dozens of students who apply and do not receive funding.
I think about those students a great deal.

This dissertation addresses issues of equity and engagement in internship opportunities, and I realize that employers are sometimes seen as the villains in the story. I should note that nearly every employer with whom I speak with wants to do the right thing and is just trying to survive a competitive landscape (the same as the students). Employers often describe their internship programs as a way for them to “give back” to students and seek to mentor the next generation of professionals in their fields. It is my
perception that employers do not set out to exclude certain students or create inequality: They are one part of a complex system.

1.5. Research Purpose and Questions

The purpose of this study is to examine the identities and cultural, social, and economic capital held by University of Vermont undergraduates who participate in internships, compared to the identities and cultural, social, and economic capital of those who do not participate in internships.

My research questions are as follows:

  1. Do students’ identities and/or economic, social, and cultural capital indicators differ depending on participation in an internship?
  2. What are the factors that significantly relate to undergraduate students’ participation in internships?

1.6. Definitions of Key Terms

Internship: An internship consists of work done in a professional environment; a connection from applied learning to academic/theoretical knowledge; and experience that is valuable for the student, and this experience may in fact be more valuable for the student than for the employer. As I will explain later, I generated this definition based on criteria from expert sources in academia, professionals in this field, and policymakers (Kuh, 2008; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2011; Sweeney, 1996)
• High-impact practices: A set of ten meaningful learning experiences that promote deep learning and student engagements (Kuh, 2008). Internships are one type of high-impact practice.
• Social capital: Resources linked to one’s network of relationships (Bourdieu, 1986).
• Cultural capital: One’s intellectual skills and knowledge (Bourdieu, 1986).
• Economic capital: Money, property, and other forms of economic wealth (Bourdieu, 1986).

—— This is the first of six articles in this series. Click here to go to the next article. This series of articles are courtesy of Amanda Chase. Amanda Chase is the director of strategic engagement for the collective impact organization Advance Vermont, where she works to increase access to postsecondary education. She also has a private consulting business, and previously worked as the internship coordinator for the University of Vermont. Amanda has worked with a wide variety of businesses to support their hiring goals, from one-person grassroots organizations to Fortune 500 companies. Her hundreds of individual career counseling clients have included high school students applying to first jobs, adults making significant career transitions, retirees seeking encore careers, and everything in between. She received a bachelor of arts in psychology from Hamilton College, a master’s degree in counseling from the University of Vermont, and an Ed.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Vermont. Her work has always centered on issues of equity and access in education and career development. To learn more about Amanda or to get in touch, visit her website.

Chase, Amanda, “As the world interns: The impact of identity and social, economic, and cultural capital on college student internship engagement” (2020). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. 1195.