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October 8, Wilmington, NC—I had just finished my freshman year with a double major in International Studies and Political Science when I was offered an unpaid internship to work for a non-profit on Capitol Hill. My transportation was covered. I would be flying. My living arrangements were covered. I would live with a roommate, one block from the Washington, DC capitol building. This was where I wanted to spend my summer, so as according to Politico, I joined the other 20,000 interns packing their suitcases. I had landed my dream job at the age of eighteen.
So I thought.
This glamourized internship offered hands-on experience of the politics of Washington, D.C. I wasn’t getting paid but at least I was living for free in an apartment that went for $2,200 a month. I dressed to the nines each day to meet with senators, congressmen, attend the Supreme Court ruling over gay-marriage; you name it, and I experienced it.
It was the worst seven weeks of my life. I say seven weeks instead of three months, because one day I was done and in the middle of the night I booked a flight home, packed my bags, and snuck out of the hell I had succumbed myself to. They never heard from me again, and I am a proud woman for doing so.
It started as soon as I had arrived. What they hadn’t told me was that my apartment was also my office. There I was, with my new stranger of a roommate, and we had one full-sized bed. We were supposed to take turns sleeping on the couch and on the bed, but I got the flu and she took the couch in favor of me having the bed. That wouldn’t have been so bad if my boss hadn’t shown up at 7 AM each day and expected us dressed, coffee and croissant for her in hand, and the apartment in pristine condition. You see, in D.C., 75 percent of our building was deemed residential space, with only 25 percent office space to avoid higher taxes. You walked in to a Victorian-style living room, a kitchenette, and an office that was connected to a small bathroom and the bedroom. It wasn’t so much the early mornings that would bother me. It was the eleven-hour unpaid workdays when at 9 PM, when I was laid out on the couch with my pajamas on and eating popcorn, that the CEO would bring his friends by the “office” to chat work affairs and I was expected to drop everything I was doing, redress, and entertain his guests with political conversation.
Oh, and I didn’t tell you, the sheets on the bed had never been washed, so one morning I sent them with my boss to be washed. I never got them back and resorted to sleeping on top of a comforter for three weeks before I had my parents send me new sheets.
There was no laundromat. No grocery stores. No privacy. It’s worth it, they said. You’ll be hired anywhere after working here, they said. I was poor as hell and I ate peanut butter sandwiches every day in front of a beautiful fountain. I had tried to eat pasta, but the hot plate didn’t ever get hot enough for the water to boil, and I accidentally strained my lukewarm pasta with a Swiffer duster because that was the only utensil that the kitchen had. Now that was humbling when, as I washed this odd kitchen utensil, I read “Swifer” on the handle. Those peanut butter sandwiches and cool spray off the fountain during my lunch hour kept me going for as long as I did.
I had immediately realized upon arrival that I also hated politics—highly inconvenient, I know. Halfway through the summer we were to hold a high school Mock Senate week, where students from all across the United States would come and I would give them tours of D.C. and organize all their activities and food. I was kicked out of my apartment for the week and slept amongst the high schoolers at a non-profit institute in Arlington. The institute had forgotten to provide sheets for the 60+ students that were arriving that afternoon. It was 1 AM by the time the janitorial staff arrived and allowed me access to the linen closet. My boss yelled me at at 2AM for that mistake. Obviously, it was my fault. I won’t describe the more profane actions of my employers, but being yelled at in front of sixty students only a year younger than myself for not having extra metro cards was a low point for me. They called me irresponsible and inadequate to even be an intern. I ran to the metro station in heels to purchase $200 more in metro cards. It was 7 AM on July 9 and it was a whooping 89 degrees. My group of students whined and complained from sun up to sun down—high school seniors. They dragged their feet and tore their dress shoes up. They were hungry, bored, and hot. I lost my favorite headband as I was pulled aside for a security search when one of my students left his cell phone in one of the congressmen’s offices. The number of events cascaded throughout the day from bad to worse. I had to purchase three students' lunches with my own cash because they lost their lunch money. I cried literal tears as I dragged 150 soda cans the mile that stretched between Union Station and the office. I bought my flight home that night.
My summer was dehumanizing. I cried my entire flight home. Tears of relief and tears of hurt. No company should subject an employee to that, especially a vulnerable, unpaid college student. I’m sure some employers in D.C. have wonderful internship opportunities. I made friends who worked as interns for senators or for news agencies that thoroughly enjoyed their summer experience; maybe you thrived in the D.C. intern scene. But employers who do offer internships, strive to be better to your interns. You can at least pay them minimum wage. Future interns, read the fine print and ask the hard questions. Your internship may not be as rewarding as they’ve made it out to be.