While we often cite our location in Manhattan to explain Columbia and Columbians (Why are we so competitive? New York. Why are we so stressed out? New York. Why are we so diverse? New York.), being situated in the city does provide an undeniable access to certain industries. For students interested in finance, consulting, the arts, fashion, journalism, publishing, or international politics and civil society, by the very fact of our presence in New York, not to mention our Ivy League credentials, we are afforded certain opportunities to explore our professional interests that are not so easily within the reach of other students.
Internships promise us experience. They allow us to explore our interests outside of the classroom and help us learn more about how what we study could translate into actual work once we graduate. Theoretically, they provide us with a foot in the door through contacts and experience to help us land not just any job, but the job we really want.
It would seem that an internship or two is the perfect complement to a Columbia education. Whether we are finance majors who want to work on Wall Street, English majors looking to go into publishing, or just interested first-years looking to fill their summers, internships offer to turn our ephemeral knowledge into concrete outcomes.
But is this critical to Columbia’s appeal?
Whether it is or not, this isn’t the right question. I wrote earlier this semester about the importance of critically examining the usual ways we think about internships. While that piece was more specifically focused on unpaid internships, the approach is still useful when considering the more general role of internships within our higher education. The question above still takes for granted that internship culture is appealing, and thus fails to further examine why the opportunity of internships might draw some students to Columbia in the first place.
When exploring how important it is to take advantage of the internship potential of New York and Columbia, it’s easy to start by asking what the outcomes are we seek. For example, it might be more important for a student pursuing journalism to intern than for someone who wants to become an academic. But internship culture isn’t about pre-professional students versus liberal arts majors, or the people who just see college as a stepping-stone to something else and those who really want to revel in academics. These are false dichotomies, though we all know the archetypes.
The truth is, we don’t choose to intern because it complements our studies. It’s hardly a choice we make at all. Unlike students of other generations who might have pursued internships for the reasons above, that we could even consider the presence of internships in New York as a reason prospective students choose Columbia over other schools is proof that these internships have become a mandatory part of our higher education. They are a prerequisite for what we must achieve in order to make real our visions of success.
At the heart of intern mania is fear—fear that we won’t get a job, fear that we aren’t as competitive as our peers, and fear that our time and money here will have been a waste of a very costly investment. Fear that is justified and grounded in very real facts and experiences. There’s a lot at stake.
That’s not to say that internships are wrong or a waste of time or merely a trend. Internships, as they were meant to function, can be incredibly beneficial to students. But it’s worth thinking about that the availability of internships, a factor simply incidental to Columbia’s location, could be as important a factor in Columbia’s appeal as those actually inherent to the institution itself. If the fear of an exploitative economy pushes us to view our time at college as simply a means to an end and nothing more—to value prestige above learning and quantity over quality—we must re-evaluate our focus. I’m less concerned with whether, as Columbia students, we are provided with a short-term professional advantage through internships. I’m more worried about how to change a system that robs me and my peers of any sort of educational agency.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in human rights. She is a former editorial page editor for Spectator.
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