Coffee, Copies and Cruelty: Internship Nightmares

Jacqueline Dobbins, senior communication major, visits the Career Resource Center (CRC) to discuss her internship. Dobbins’ first internship experience did not go well, and after going through the CRC, she finished two more successful ones. Photos by Angie Merkely

Jacqueline Dobbins, senior communication major, visits the Career Resource Center (CRC) to discuss her internship. Dobbins’ first internship experience did not go well, and after going through the CRC, she finished two more successful ones. Photos by Angie Merkely

Mitch Incorvaia loves photography and hates attorneys.

He was an undergraduate at University of South Florida majoring in criminal justice when he was offered an internship for a local attorney. Incorvaia was familiar with internship horror stories of doomed students with tedious tasks and no real work experience.

He assumed he would have the same fate of normal intern work: researching, filing, phone calls, etc. However, those mundane tasks would spiral into a path that turned his boring internship into an ethical nightmare.

Once Incorvaia’s supervisor saw his interest in photography, she recruited his talents for research and providing evidence in personal lawsuits. The tasks weren’t difficult, although they left a pit in his stomach.

Slowly, the cases Incorvaia documented led to a series of lies. He realized that some of the defendants the firm was gathering evidence against were often innocent, yet Incorvaia was asked to take pictures at certain angles to distort the truth or withhold evidence. The entire internship experience ruined his ambition and desire to have a law career.

“I wanted to become an attorney as someone who cared for people and wanted to represent them for wrongs caused,” he said. “Instead, the most valuable experience I learned was that most attorneys would say and do whatever it takes for their own advantage and profit, regardless of innocent people being hurt.”

Incorvaia is one of many students who had a troubling internship experience. Many others like him find themselves in hostile work environments or stuck doing meaningless and tedious tasks they originally had not expected. Some students are also fated with sexism, unanticipated responsibilities or zero compensation.

“You are in control of this internship and what you will get out of it,” said Brianna Koucos, director of the Career Resource Center (CRC). “Take note of what you discover about yourself through the experience. Remember that you are still learning and developing your skills. Not every day of your internship will challenge you. Not every task required of you will thrill you. However, this experience can help you develop into a professional. These experiences can help you determine what type of employee you will be. ”

Employees at the Career Resource Center help students thoroughly prepare for their internships. They can help students find internships, create an application, make targeted cover letters and resumes and set up mock interviews. 

Employees at the Career Resource Center help students thoroughly prepare for their internships. They can help students find internships, create an application, make targeted cover letters and resumes and set up mock interviews. 

Such experiences helped Incorvaia decide what direction he wanted to take after graduation. He put himself through fire academy and paramedic school and eventually became a firefighter.

It only took the greedy, ugly side of people to push me in the direction of my true calling,” he said. “Now, I truly make a difference in people’s lives in so many ways.”

Approximately 11 percent of Westminster students had an internship last year, according to data from the CRC. The average supervisor feedback score was a 93 percent, however, there is no data on student feedback for an internship as a whole.

Depending on the student’s major, an essay evaluating the internship is submitted to a faculty coordinator. This can be an opportunity for students to express any grievances that may have occurred during their internship.

“People don’t really do that, from what I’ve seen,” said Jan Lyons, assistant director of the CRC and a faculty coordinator in the Gore School of Business. “Maybe students do, but I haven’t heard about it. If they do mundane tasks, we would talk to the supervisor and say, ‘This isn’t working out. This isn’t what we expected.’ We also get a lot evaluations from students, and they don’t say that they do those mundane tasks, which you would normally think would happen.”

Still, some students said they didn’t get enough out of their internship, and they also chose to not report it.

I didn’t say a lot [in the evaluation],” said Nicole Gamble, senior communication major. “I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries.”

Looking back now, honestly, I hear people get a lot of experience from their internships, and I feel like I didn’t get that.
— Nicole Gamble, senior communication major

Gamble was interested in an intern position for graphic design to see if that was a career path she wanted to take. Unfortunately, Gamble said she felt she did not get the experience she expected.

“It really wasn’t much graphic design work,” Gamble said. “It was more of their content on this blank page. I felt like I wasn’t getting to know the Adobe products like I wanted to during that internship.”

Gamble said she regrets that she didn’t get to use and hone her skills more during her internship. She said she wasn’t completely invested in it and that it just turned into something she did for school credit.

Communication majors, such as Gamble, are required to complete one internship during their time at Westminster in order to graduate. Other programs also have this requirement. As in Gamble’s case, this can lead to an unmotivating situation that is only done for school credit rather than experience in the career world.

“Looking back now, honestly, I hear people get a lot of experience from their internships, and I feel like I didn’t get that,” she said.

In May 2014, approximately 30,000 students were surveyed by Gallup, Inc., and just 6 percent strongly agreed that they had an internship or job that allowed them to apply what they were learning.

Koucos, the director of the CRC, said she urges students to take the initiative to avoid such instances and make the most out of their internships.

“If you don’t have anything to do, ask around and find out if anyone needs help,” Koucos said. “Don’t be discouraged if you realize you don’t like a job or industry. That might not seem like a positive takeaway, but it is useful information. Everything you learn along the way can help you get closer and closer to the most ideal career for you.”

CRC employees also encourage students to get in touch with them or their faculty internship coordinators if they feel uncomfortable with their internships or aren’t gaining the experience they anticipated.

Approximately 11 percent of Westminster students had an internship last year, according to data from the Career Resource Center. The average supervisor feedback score was a 93 percent, however, there is no data on student feedback for an internship as a whole. 

Approximately 11 percent of Westminster students had an internship last year, according to data from the Career Resource Center. The average supervisor feedback score was a 93 percent, however, there is no data on student feedback for an internship as a whole. 

We do not want a student to have a negative experience based upon them not getting what they want,” said Jon Davis, associate director of the CRC. “If we can know that early enough, we can take corrective action either to rectify the situation or help the student find a different internship.”

Davis said the number one issue interns have during their experiences is lack of communication with their supervisors.

“I would strongly encourage any intern to get clear with whoever they are working with to understand what is expected of them,” Davis said. “Students can do themselves a favor by asking questions and making sure they are clear on things.”

Davis said it is rare for students to speak up about poor internships, but when it does happen, it is because the students find themselves in situations they didn’t anticipate or sign up for.

Jacqueline Dobbins, senior communication major, found her seemingly perfect internship with Mills Publishing in 2014. She discovered the posting on Westminster’s online database for off-campus jobs. Dobbins was a marketing major at the time, but was considering switching to communication.

“[Mills Publishing] needed a marketing and communication intern, so I thought it would be the perfect fit,” Dobbins said. “I was wrong.”

Dobbins chose not to do the internship for school credit, but it was not paid either. She was under the impression that she would eventually get the stipend she was promised. Her supervisors always seemed to forget about it though, and she was never paid.

“To make matters worse, I soon found out that my internship was actually a replacement for a former full-time employee,” Dobbins said. “So, I was doing the work of a full-time employee for free, essentially. Not cool.”

After three months, Dobbins found a different internship that paid. She gave Mills Publishing her notice, and on her last day, she was reimbursed for her work—a $40 voucher to a restaurant that was a client of the company.

“The only thing I learned from this whole experience is that what they did was illegal and, well, shitty,” Dobbins said. “Now I know I should be getting paid or getting credit—unless of course they are a non-profit, and then that’s a whole other can of shitty worms.”

Non-profit organizations are exempt from paying interns, with the requirement that it is understood volunteer work, according to the Department of Labor (DOL). However, Mills Publishing was a for-profit company and did not meet such standards.

Companies like Mills Publishing are only permitted to use unpaid internships if they meet six specific criteria outlined by the DOL—namely, that it is of educational benefit to the intern.

In Dobbins’ case, another criterion is that the intern does not replace regular employees, which she did. Because Dobbins did not have a faculty coordinator during her internship, she did not feel compelled to report the company’s illegal practices.

The CRC welcomes evaluations, yet it leaves students responsible for choosing what internships they apply for.

“We just post whatever internships people send to us,” said Lyons, assistant director of the CRC. “They are in Employment Wizard, and it is up to the students to go through and figure out if those internships meet what they are looking for.”

CRC employees do, however, help students thoroughly prepare for their internships. They can help students find internships, create an application, make targeted cover letters and resumes and set up mock interviews. Multiple CRC employees said they strongly encourage internships and want students to always have a positive experience.

“The student can gain skills and experience while also determining if this role is a position they would like to pursue full time,” said Koucos, director of the CRC. “If you feel that you are not being treated in a respectful, professional manner, or you have concerns about your internship, please let someone at the Career Center know at 801-832-2590. We are here to advocate for you.”

Writer’s Note: Angie Merkley is a communication major, and some of the sources in this article are her peers who she knows personally.