It was uncomfortably but unsurprisingly hot when I got to 47 Canal St. on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of August. I was there to interview Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers for a preview of the sculpture/painting/performance/installation/happening that they would be showing that night at the small, very edgy-and-up-and-coming gallery in Chinatown, fashionably named after its own street address. The artists were late, which was no surprise and no problem. I kept sweating up to the sixth floor to see my friend Tenaya, who'd been working as a gallery assistant there for a year.
Twenty minutes of idle midsummer catch-up later and her boss Margaret, who'd been working at a computer in the corner, clearly couldn't resist the urge to ask me, the strange, talkative kid who was distracting her assistant, who I was and what I was doing—both in life generally, and at that moment, taking up space in the apartment above her gallery that she'd converted to an office.
I told her: I went to Columbia with Tenaya. She lit up: "I graduated from Barnard in 2001!" And I was doing graphic design and some freelance writing for the summer. "Cool, cool," she said. And I was there to interview Kerstin and Debo. "Oh!" She was relieved for a second—that I had a reason to be there—and then, a second later, startled by it. "You Columbia kids are everywhere. You're crazy!"
Are we? "You and Tenaya—I mean, 10 years ago at Columbia, no one ever wanted to do anything. You maybe got one internship before graduating to make sure you had a job."
That sounded crazy. Internships are the air that some of us breathe in between every class and extracurricular appointment in our week, especially if we fancy ourselves "creative," and want to work in "creative" industries, where money is tight, jobs are scarce and underpaid, and having five to six internships on your résumé is the baseline prerequisite to being considered for any of them.
We seem to have acclimated well, though, and nothing seems crazy about it anymore. The perennial trend piece that waxes incredulous and impressed at our workplace ambition as college students feels about as out-of-touch as the trend pieces that wax incredulous about "hookup culture" or our proclivity for social media. A 2011 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers established what we already knew: Over half of graduating seniors have completed an internship in their time at college. Columbia's Center for Career Education is not forthcoming with numbers, but it'd be hard to believe that that percentage isn't even higher in Morningside Heights. Tenaya's boss was right: We are everywhere—in galleries, at news desks, in fashion closets, and on-set. Interning today is a fait accompli.
But Margaret wasn't wrong: We are also crazy. I was, after all, not visiting my intern friend. Tenaya was a gallery assistant, her interning days long behind her. The truly crazy part—and maybe the only thing that my friend's employer and I could agree on in this awkward workday run-in—was that even this didn't seem exceptional to me. I could instantly think of a dozen other peers who'd graduated from intern to payrolled employee well before they graduated from Columbia. In the 10 years that Margaret mentioned, the unrelenting arms race of intern culture seems to have lapped itself: the new gold standard for undergrad employment isn't working a good internship in your senior year, but working a good job—not at the library or in the dining hall, but at the big-name publishing houses, too-cool downtown galleries, and next-big-thing startups where everyone else interns.
The progression seems natural, and we as interns may not even be the ones behind it. "I was excited, but I wasn't really surprised," says Ashton Cooper, former editor in chief of The Eye, who took on a part-time editorship at Louise Blouin Media a semester before she graduated from Barnard in May. "One of my bosses was always trying to hire me and convince me to drop out of school," she laughs as I talk to her at Louise Blouin's big open-plan offices in Chelsea, where she started interning in 2011. "People actually had to remind him that I was still in school." When she got an email during last year's winter break asking her to come on part-time as an editor, she wasn't sure she would take it. "I really wanted to have time to enjoy my last semester," she remembers. But she got on a call with the editor who'd extended her the offer (the same one who'd been rooting, in jest, for her to quit college) and changed her mind. "It was basically him talking me into it, because I wasn't sure I could handle a part-time job and writing my thesis," she says. Just after graduating, Cooper continued on as a full-time news editor.
Heben Nigatu, a Columbia College senior and an associate editor at BuzzFeed, says her team at work was just as supportive (if less coercive) when they offered her a job at the end of her three-month fellowship. "They were really flexible, actually," she says. Key people involved in her hiring knew that she wasn't done with school. "But they didn't care," she says. "I don't think they saw it as 'hiring a student' or anything like that." In their eyes, she was just a valuable employee. "I told them that I did actually want to finish school, and they were all very supportive. I guess they really like me," she laughs, "enough to want me to finish and be flexible about it."
Cooper and Nigatu are only two examples of liberal-arts college students on an increasingly common career track. They both have stellar internship records that got started at the height of the Great Recession and its surrounding employment panic. Google searches for "internship" increased that year and for three years afterward. Starting in 2007, we made time for more work, and less play.
Then, as we're told, the economy started to pick up. According to news anchors and the federal labor data they cite, tens of thousands of jobs have been added to the economy almost every month for the past couple of years. And employers at the companies that saw that growth (i.e., anywhere that could be described by the words "online," "media," "startup," or "online media startup") are apparently quite content to pull from the new class of hyper-qualified, over-experienced interns that the recession has spawned.
In her four years at Barnard, Cooper interned at Paul Kasmin Gallery, Pierogi Gallery, Printed Matter, Artinfo.com, Art in America Magazine, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and Artspace, all before settling into her current gig. Nigatu had done time at BET, SNL, a casting agency, a documentary filmmaker's studio, and, obviously, BuzzFeed before she was hired there.
Rega Jha, a 2013 Columbia College graduate who works with Nigatu at BuzzFeed as a staff writer, remembers her introduction to recession-borne job anxiety when she was just starting school. "I made friends at Columbia and NYU who were graduating and just sitting around for months and months not finding anything. So the pressure was certainly on," she says. Under that pressure, she landed internships at Rolling Stone, Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue, Reader's Digest, Time Out New York, and the New Yorker. "That fear was something that I was made aware of very early on and something I was terrified of, and I think that played into being a serial intern all the time," she adds. "You wanted to pose yourself as well as possible to not be that person." The effort panned out: She started as a paid fellow at BuzzFeed immediately after graduating, and canceled plans for journalism school to come on as a staff writer three months later.
"Flavorwire, BuzzFeed, and companies like them—they just want young kids who are good at what they do," she explains.
Of course, that intern pool is full of students working under the assumption that such jobs are impossibly difficult to come by. In effect, creative industries that heretofore have been notoriously non-preprofessional are becoming just as obsessively career-track-minded as Goldman Sachs or Booz Allen Hamilton.
Pre-med students take pre-med classes and pass the MCAT and go to medical school. Pre-law students take the LSAT and go to law school. Finance types work their asses off for a summer or two on Wall Street, in London, or in Hong Kong. Consultants are recruited on-campus by consulting firms and start work in what are literally called "classes" with a horde of other recent grads. The track to a creative job is less clear-cut. The instinct is apparently to get 101 internships. And if one job offer comes your way, take it, no questions asked.
Amanda Cormier, also a former editor in chief of The Eye, started as a part-time assistant at the New Yorker Festival during her last semester at Columbia in spring 2012. "I knew that jobs in journalism are very hard to come by these days," she explains, "especially for recent graduates when all they have to their name is experience on the school paper and a few internships. I just knew that something better was not likely to come up, and that was a huge factor in why I took the job before graduating. I think I still feel very lucky and grateful and sort of like an outlier. Every time I read a story online about how screwed up my generation is and how we're all unemployed, it really makes me think again, 'Wow, I really did get lucky.'"
All of us on campus are lucky to have these opportunities—both because we're at Columbia, and, largely, because Columbia is in Manhattan. It might be the single most popular reason that any of us enrolled in the first place. Think back to all the small talk you made at orientation, and try to recall one classmate who answered your standard "Why Columbia?" query without some line to the effect of, "Obviously, New York."
"I mean, we are privileged students, we're privileged because we have all the resources of New York City right in front of us, and industries thrive off of students, so we're in this really unique position," offers Naomi Cohen, a junior in Columbia College who so far has interned at Amnesty International, New York Press, a Bolivian expat magazine, City Limits, and on a couple of documentaries. "I feel like we're in very high demand, and we have access to anything in any industry if you really go after it," she says.
But if we prove ourselves employable in this city before even finishing our degree, what exactly is the value of staying here—in dorms, in class, in Butler? Excuse the lazy metaphor, but if Columbia is our head start, why keep running when we cross the finish line?
Of course, appraising our degree as the means to a well-paying job is not what romantic admissions brochures have ever encouraged us to do. Money—who needs it? Habits of mind, diversity of thought, world-class instruction: These are supposedly the selling points of a B.A. from a school like Columbia. (And the going price, as we all know, is roughly $240,000.)
We as students are rarely so sanguine, and our reasons for matriculating are often more realistic. "It's important to complete a degree because your parents want you to," jokes Samara Trilling, a Columbia College junior who worked at the social media startup Timehop in her freshman and sophomore years until she interned at Google this summer. "The only reason that a college degree is necessary is because there are people who think a college degree is necessary."
Interestingly, the same sense of job-market instability that compels undergrads to accept job offers also compels them to stay in school after the fact.
"Not graduating from college was not an option once I got my job," Cormier remembers. "I felt very lucky to have gotten a job before graduation, but I think, in creative fields, your industry climate is never something you can predict, and I think having a degree in your back pocket is so important because of that. Whether it's a degree from Columbia or any other school—I think it [the school on the degree] matters a little less in creative fields."
While we're entering a less dismal job market than we would have been three years ago, we don't seem to have reclaimed the same sense of security that justified undergraduate lethargy 10 years ago. The availability of jobs feels just as tenuous as the value of our degree. Naturally, our instinct is to take out insurance policies on both.
Employed students' reasons for sticking with it, whether idealistic or pragmatic, are understandable. When you hear that a classmate edits the blog that you read during the lecture you have with them, the more pressing question that presents itself is how they manage it.
"It's actually really hard," says Tenaya Izu, my aforementioned gallery assistant friend from 47 Canal. "I would try to be reading my books on the subway and be falling asleep at the same time, or I would go to the bathroom during work because I couldn't keep my eyes open and I was sitting across the table from my boss. It's the worst! I would fall asleep with my head, like, on the toilet paper roll and wake up like, 'Oh my god! How long have I been out?'"
Cooper agrees that her part-time job downtown required intensive time management during her final semester. "I never went to Senior Night," she says. "My week was spent at work and in class, and my whole weekend was devoted to doing homework. But it's manageable," she insists. "I don't regret it. I still had time to hang out with my friends and enjoy senior year, and it was really nice not to have to go through the horrible stress of looking for a job which all of my friends were going through."
And besides, how many people really go to Senior Night? It's a commonly acknowledged truth that Columbia has neither the sports culture nor Greek life of a state school, nor the close-knit community of a small liberal-arts campus. You can blame it on New York, or you can count it as a blessing. Either way, everyone I asked said the same thing: that their work experience off campus—its own set of stresses notwithstanding—came as a form of emotional relief, as an opportunity to physically and psychologically remove themselves from academic anxiety, and as a place to root themselves in the city that wasn't as isolated as our way-uptown Ivy.
A campus is only the sum of its students, and a lot of Columbians came here already intending to spend time downtown. "My first internship was right after 10th grade," Jha admits. "I just emailed the editors of the Times of India, like, 'Hey, I'm 14 and I don't really have anything to do. Do you have a place for me?' And after that, it just became a thing that I was used to having in my life, being surrounded by working professionals and being out in the world doing real work aside from school." She hasn't looked back, she says. "Being surrounded by professionals and being accountable to something real was always just fun."
But these pros and cons all hold true for unpaid commitments. The one big, glaring perk enjoyed by the prematurely employed is money. A lot of it. That is to say, more of it than you make at a work-study job somewhere in Lerner. From having a personal savings account for the first time to contemplating self-financed vacations, the encroachment of careerism on one's college years does have value that is less abstract than self-fulfillment.
"The first semester of sophomore year, I paid for all my own expenses except for tuition, basically," Trilling remembers. "It's nice to know that that's possible." That said, she was quick to acknowledge that many Columbia students pay their own tuition, too.
The irony, of course, is that the people who intern vigorously enough to finally get on their employer's payroll are supposedly the people who already have enough cash on hand to bankroll seasons of unpaid labor. But the phenomenon of pre-graduation, part-time employment could actually be seen as a shift toward slightly more democratic competition. Regardless of the particular burden that paying Columbia tuition poses to each family, and barring the fact that there are still plenty of people who can't afford to attend, the expense is at least more evenly afforded across our student body than, say, the cost of living in New York and working unpaid for any period of time after our four years here. And we're fortunate enough to go to a school whose career center will help cover its students' living expenses if they land an unpaid opportunity.
"For me, having a job when I graduated was 100 percent necessary," Cooper explains. "I don't have any family in the tri-state area, I didn't want to ask my parents for financial support, and didn't feel comfortable taking that from them. Not having a job was not an option for me, basically."
The sooner we intern, the sooner we find jobs, and the sooner we stop surviving on our parents' resources. If we can do this before the socially acceptable period of indulgent leeching called college is over, and do it working a job in a field we love, all the better.