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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Justin Peligri: Fighting back against free labor

Free labor is a lynchpin of the modern college experience – especially at GW, where nine in every 10 students hold internships over the course of their undergraduate years.

Fortunately, some higher education leaders are trying to change this culture that compels students to work but doesn’t encourage anyone to pay them. Last week, Columbia University added itself to the small but growing list of universities that will refuse to provide students with academic credit for their internships – removing the crutch that employers often lean on to justify not paying interns.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

If GW made this leap, the student body – thinking about their short-term futures – would likely throw one big, collective hissy fit. After all, popular intern spots in the District like government offices on the Hill and at the State Department usually don’t pay their interns, and many nonprofits require academic credit to work there.

But students and administrators here are always spouting off about how the District is our backyard. So why don’t we use this opportunity to shape the landscape a little more?

Making the decision to remove the academic credit option wouldn’t just be a way for GW reduce its administrative costs and deal with less paperwork. Actually, it’s a high-minded idea that would make the University a centerpiece in the emerging cultural conversation on the immorality of unpaid internships.

We like to think that our school focuses strictly on enlightening our nation’s young people, thriving in a pure world completely separate from corporate America. But realistically speaking, that’s not the case. GW wouldn’t be able to exist without its real estate holdings across the District and donations from wealthy business executives.

Some students here are critical of the administration, which, they argue, operates like a business. That’s because it is a business. For better or worse, it seems that corporate world and the academic one are tightly intertwined.

Taking away academic credit for internships, and thereby pushing companies and organizations for which GW students intern to start issuing paychecks, is a way to use that connection for good. Administrators should stand up to local law groups and public relations firms – and rebuff student critics who are weary from all the red tape – by making it clear that students won’t be subject to free labor under their watch.

Columbia’s dean of academic affairs Kathryn Yatrakis told students in an email that the goal of the school’s move is to encourage fairer financial treatment for college students, who often find themselves pressured into working long hours without compensation to increase their prospects in a tough job market.

“We expect companies to appropriately compensate students for work performed during internships,” Yatrakis wrote.

This is wishful thinking to an extent: We’ve seen huge organizations like the Manhattan-based media company Condé Nast simply discontinue their internship programs in recent months after a series of lawsuits mandating other large corporations to pay their interns.

Those who herald Columbia’s move as an honorable fight against the corporate machine should keep in mind that at times, the machine will fight back, putting students’ prospects of obtaining valuable work experience at risk.

But that doesn’t mean GW should back down. At the very least, this is yet another opportunity for GW to draw parallels between itself and top-tier institutions it seeks to emulate, like Columbia, Harvard and Yale – all of which have taken away academic credit.

This could be a crucial first step in changing the culture of free labor for D.C. students.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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