Sheryl Swingley has been the journalism internship coordinator at Ball State University for more than 20 years, where she also teaches journalism. We sat down to talk with her about paid and unpaid internships, the kind of advice she offers students and trends at Ball State—where she says students’ paid summer internships have dropped by nearly half.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How have you seen the internship landscape change since you started at Ball State?
I haven’t seen internships for journalism students, or even public relations or advertising students, change in terms of opportunities and what’s expected of them. Our students have always expected to be involved in producing real work.
But what I have seen is fewer internships paying, and some internships still requiring students to work 40 hours [a week] for nothing. For the last 11 or 12 years, I’ve kept a record of the number of summer interns paid, the hourly wage, inflation dollars—the hot year was 2003, when we had 60 percent of our students paid. It’s dropped as low as 25 percent, and it was 26 percent in 2013.
"The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication accrediting body used to have a separate section in their internship book for journalism internships. But they don’t anymore."
The first 10 years as my time as coordinator, our career center director was adamant that she would not list unpaid internships. But that’s changed a little over time. Different directors have said that because of the bad economy, we need to list these opportunities for students. And I’m thinking, “Yeah, in these bad times we’re going to send them out and show them how to work for nothing!”
Our long-term philosophy is that interns should be paid. We feel that they’re worth it. They’re contributing to the operations of any business they go in. If they’re not, in our view, that’s not a good internship.
However, we have options for paid and unpaid internships, and it’s up to the student to decide. I don’t know of anyone in our department now, in the past or in the future, who would ever say that a student couldn’t be paid during an internship. For me, that’s criminal. And there are universities out there that say that.
How do you screen listings that people send to you?
Most of the time, I know the people or the companies, so it’s not that difficult to screen. But some I rarely share, particularly virtual internships. We want students in an office setting, so they can see how people interact in a professional environment. We often find our students are prepared technically, but they’re surprised at how professionals work and office politics. That’s often the real education.
We require our interns to be in the workplace at least three days a week, for 20 hours a week. We feel that’s what it takes to get anything out of the internship. We’d like them to be there more. But we realize if they’re not paid, they’re likely going to do the minimum, so that they can work another job.
How do you respond to employers who don’t pay?
Periodically, when I’ve felt comfortable, I would bring up the fact that it’s federal law that interns should be paid—particularly with for-profit companies. [Federal guidelines say unpaid internships must meet six criteria.] Now, I don’t talk about the law. I say it’s discriminatory. Our students with fewer resources may be some of our most talented students, but they can’t afford to go for those internships in D.C., New York, or Chicago. When I bring that up, it doesn’t seem to change policy. I’ve made [employers] feel guilty, but that’s about it.
Sometimes I tell students that if they don’t have debt, doing an internship might be worth going out and getting a loan; it might elevate you and help you get a start. But most of them have an awful lot of debt. And it just hurts.
Do outside accrediting bodies impact your policies?
Yes, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication accrediting body used to have a separate section in their internship book for journalism internships. But they don’t anymore. To my knowledge, the accrediting body has never indicated whether interns can be paid or not paid. But they would say that we could only have so many hours allocated for internship credit, if we required it. [The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication accrediting body says that internship credit should not exceed six semester credits, or nine quarter credit hours.]
Our internships used to be three credits. I proposed a professional development seminar to help students prepare for their internships that was a one-hour class. And since our accreditation limits the number of hours we can have in journalism courses, we took our internships down to two. Plus, if we have fewer hours the student has to enroll in, it costs them less.