Unpaid political interns work to gain experience, break into field
While political interns are often not paid, they receive valuable hands-on experience, access to professional networks and a boost to their résumé.Image By: Katie Scheidt
Sophomore Sarah Metropulos’ daily tasks reflect those of a typical legislative employee—she works in the Capitol, attends caucus meetings and writes letters to constituents.
There is one difference, however. As an intern, she is not paid for her work.
Metropulos is one of many college students at UW-Madison and across the nation who decide to take an internship and get paid in experience, information and professional contacts rather than in money.
A political science major, Metropulos has worked as an intern for state Rep. Amanda Stuck, D-Appleton, for more than a year.
She said she wanted an internship to receive more real-world experience and go beyond what she learned in the classroom.
“What you learn in the real world and being at the Capitol is so different than what they teach you in class,” Metropulos said. “It is a lot more applicable to what you’re going to be doing in the future.”
Internships can improve students’ chances of getting employed after college. A recent survey found that 60 percent of employers said they preferred hiring applicants with at least one internship on their résumé, according to investigative news organization ProPublica.
Kate Constalie, legislative aid to state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, previously worked as an unpaid intern for Shilling in Madison. She said interning for Sen. Schilling played a role in her receiving a job offer in the office later.
“I think [interning] really helped give me the good start I needed for when I graduated,” Constalie said.
Constalie echoed Metropulos’ view that her internship gave her valuable hands-on experience in the field of politics.
“It rounds you out and helps hone your professional skills, your professional writing [and] speaking,” Constalie said.
Constalie’s duties as an intern included working with constituents and attending Senate and assembly sessions. She said her favorite part was seeing what goes on behind the scenes.
Metropulos communicates with constituents as well, and does other office tasks such as labeling and filing. She said the highlight of her internship has been attending Gov. Scott Walker’s State of the State addresses.
While the internship has made Metropulos realize she does not necessarily want to be a legislator, it has taught her how to network.
“It’s all about connections, even [with] people within the community,” Metropulos said. “I think that is so important for any job that you go [into].”
Constalie agreed that internships provide opportunities to meet people in other organizations.
“It’s an important aspect of your post-college life,” Constalie said. “No matter what internship you’re working on, making sure you’re getting your name out there and making a good impression [and] meeting people.”
Contacts can become future job references for interns and give a heads-up when there is an opening in their office, Constalie noted.
Stuck invited Metropulos to work on her re-election campaign this summer, and Metropulos said she knows she can go to the representative in the future if she needs a letter of recommendation.
Ultimately, neither Metropulos nor Constalie said it is unfair that they were not paid for their work.
Between 500,000 and 1 million people intern for free every year, according to ProPublica.
“Yeah, paid internships are great, but I just don’t really think that there’s that many of them,” Constalie said.
Metropulos said she did not expect to be paid because she first came in as a freshman and lacked experience in the field.
“I think that college students that want jobs like that know that you have to be unpaid for a little bit,” Metropulos said. “Like you can’t just walk in anywhere and expect to do a job like that and get paid right away, without a degree.”
While their internships were not paid, both women received course credit toward graduation for their internships.
Currently, 90 percent of universities offer academic credit for them, according to ProPublica.
Metropulos said she believes being unpaid has helped her build relationships with her employers.
“They know that I’m there because I want to be there, not because I’m getting paid for it,” Metropulos said. “They know that I’m there because I want to learn, and since they know that they want to teach me as much as they can in the short time that I’m gonna be there. I think that helps with the trustworthiness between us.”
Although unpaid internships are beneficial, people have criticized them for not being a feasible option for minority and lower-class students who cannot afford to work without pay, according to The Washington Post.
Presidential candidates came under fire last year for denouncing student debt and economic inequality while not paying their own interns, The Washington Post discovered.
In fact, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is the only presidential candidate who does, an anomaly in the intern economy.
While unpaid interns are common in the political realm, the work they do is key to getting things done.
“Amanda Stuck is in office because she got voted into office,” Metropulos said. “But the only way she did that is through unpaid people.”
UPDATE (3/14/15, 12:54 p.m.): A previous version of this piece referred to Jen Shilling as a state representative for LaCrosse. She is a state senator.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter