It’s timely for me that The Cut would broach the topic of how interns are treated. My latest one, my third, started on Monday. With her arrival, I’d been thinking about writing an essay called something like “How to Train and Treat Your Intern”. I planned to solicit stories from all my friends – anonymous, of course—about their experiences and how bosses could improve. I thought is necessary since most who have help are not given formal training on what to do—or not. Interns get treated pretty much however the person they are working for was— good, bad, and at times, super ugly.

But then Kayleen Schaefer wrote a fascinating story about former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang who is suing the Bazaar parent company, Hearst Corporation, for violating federal and state labor laws since they did not pay her for her work. Her attorneys want Hearst to pay its former interns “back wages, overtime, and other damages.” Her suit, has become a class action one. My idea, went to the  back burner.

Wang described her four-month internship as a “horrible” and “outrageous” experience. She worked five days a week from 9AM to 8PM and her pretty standard duties were to “track the thousands of purses, shoes, and pieces of jewelry lent to the magazine for photo shoots. She managed as many as eight other interns, sending them on 30 to 40 errands a day, and helping them file expense reports. She answered the accessories director’s phone, writing the caller’s name and holding it up, so her boss could decide whether or not to take the call.”

Her tales of woe include the night she stayed late at the office after everyone left to unpack “a trunk full of accessories, tissue-wrapped piece by tissue-wrapped piece, to dig out a single misplaced necklace. Or the practical agony of getting through a subway turnstile with seven shopping bags in her hands. She chafed at tasks unrelated to the magazine’s operations, like hand-delivering new outfits to editors between Fashion Week shows.”

Despite her “E” for effort, Wang was not offered a job at the end of her internship, and her editor declined to write a recommendation, which means Wang wasn’t so great at her duties or her editor was straight up evil. Both are possible.  Hearst has derided the lawsuit as “without merit.”

Why? Probably because what Wang describes is a walk in the @#$%ing park.

This is the part where I’m supposed to go an old folks-like rant. You know how they describe how hard things were “way back when” and how kids “nowadays” don’t understand struggle or hard work. I’ll pass. Let’s just say Wang wouldn’t have lasted a day at Vibe or Oneworld or Time Out New York, all magazines where I interned and where working long hours for free, completing mind-numbingly frustrating (but necessary) tasks—you don’t know hell until you’re tasked with, on deadline, transcribing a two-hour interview with multiple speakers and all of them sound like they’re whispering — and catering to every editor’s competing whim was par for the course.

Let’s focus instead on what Wang missed, but will never realize because she gave up and didn’t make it far enough in The Industry to have an intern of her own. Interning – the long hours for little or no pay, the meager duties, the swallowing of pride (it is impossible not to be humble when as a college student or graduate, one of your duties requires you to stand at a copier for 3 hours)—is a necessary rite of passage.

At the beginning of each season, loads of bright –eyed students cross magazine thresholds, dreaming of getting a byline and turning their government name into a brand. What most don’t know until they arrive is all that glitters is not proverbial gold. There is an extraordinary amount of work and personal sacrifice and humility that goes into filling the glossy pages of your favorite magazines. As an editor, there’s the 2500 feature that was assigned at the last-minute that you researched and interviewed all those people for, then dutifully wrote, and then suddenly its cut. You’re lucky if it runs as a 300-word blurb in the front of the book. There’s the dressing down by a celebrity publicist, who represents near every A-lister and holds so much leverage, who is ticked at an image you ran of their client and threatens not to let others appear in your pages, much less that particular celebrity ever again. Whether it’s your fault or not, imagine explaining that to your boss when you know everyone likes to shoot the messenger. There are the never-ending meetings where you’re expected to pull ideas out your @ss because your higher up, who can shoot the side-eye of death, won’t let you leave until you produce a worthy idea, which means the ones that you’ve spent the last two weeks thinking of was time wasted. You can experience all this before Wednesday.

One of the purposes of an internship, from the intern’s perspective, should be to see the dream up close and decide if what’s behind the Wizard’s curtain is actually what you want. And if it’s not, that’s fine. Understand that your supervisor, in any stressful and fast-paced career, is evaluating you as much on your ability to do the work (if you got the internship, you’ve proven you can produce something of quality) as your ability to handle all the bullsh@#! that comes with the hard-won glitz. Your supervisor wants to see if you’re there for the “flashing lights” or if you’re willing and able to grind for the few and far between grandiose moments. You don’t get the privilege of being “[insert your name here] from [insert publication here]” and all the perks that can come with it without proving you can handle the headaches of being on the masthead. That’s actually what your internship is for. And your editor can’t know if you can handle the pressure if you’re there for the right reasons if you haven’t demonstrated the ability.

Those humbling, mediocre tasks that screw with your ego are actually necessary for the job. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but they are teaching you something if you’re smart enough to open your eyes and observe what’s going on around you.

In between standing at the copier for hours at Vibe, I figured out how to pitch a story and get my first national byline.  At Oneworld, where I was once tasked with, in teen-degree weather, of running around to various record stores to find an obscure, limited edition CD so that the photo editor could use the art in a story, I learned that writing well is more than a good hook and flipping a witty sentence, but actually having substance—a trait that a surprising number of published writers haven’t yet mastered. At Time Out New York, where my main duty was The Most Boring Job on Earth, ie, sorting through the mail and the hundreds of faxes they received daily, I learned how to decipher what was relevant to the audience. No one ever explained to me the purpose of my presence, I figured it out, and I realized long after the internship was over the priceless value of what I’d picked up just by being present.

An internship—even unpaid– is the opportunity of a lifetime for a person just starting out. Whether the tasks are endlessly Google-ing obscure facts or tissue wrapping precious baubles or giving your boss a head’s up of who’s on the phone, it’s still a front row seat at the How We Run This Operation show. You see the key players in action and if you are smart and/or borderline observant, you pick up the traits of how to get ahead in and stay in the game. It’s not about getting a job in the end, it’s about learning the ropes and getting a mentor who will connect you and advocate for you for the rest of your professional life. If you get the priceless chance to have and you can’t learn anything from it, that’s on you.  Perhaps one of the hundreds of other applicants who applied for the spot and didn’t get it may have made more use of the experience.

Unfortunately, everyone doesn’t get to live the dream. If you are privileged and squander the opportunity, or worse, like Wang, don’t even realize when one has been handed to you, you don’t deserve entry into the world you thought you belonged in.

Demetria L. Lucas the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk

Image Credits: The Cut/Glamazons Blog

  • Me

    GIRL. Snaps for you! This is the same in the film industry I went to LA and did my work but being a black girl – and i am NOT using this a crutch – I honestly couldn’t fit in. Or they wouldn’t allow me but there was something off. If I did something wrong I didn’t receive the same punishment as others and I noticed it and it hurt. I grew up believing – I’m JAMAICAN damn it! – that if you work hard you will succeed and if you fail it is on you. And that is the truth in the long term but for this occasion I did work and then some but I believe that I didn’t build a network (and really didn’t learn anything but errands and how superficial people are in LA) with them and felt like I wasted my time. Next time I know to RESEARCH but for 40 hours a week I’m sorry but an entry-level fee would have been nice. I was struggling in LA I’m from NY. What if I hadn’t saved my money how would I have paid rent? Groceries? How do ppl expect other to WORK HARD for nothing? Not even for minimum wage? I have a min wage job now and that still isn’t cutting it for my rent my mom has to help me. What about ppl who dare to dream but have no one but themselves? They just can’t work for 40 hours like dogs for nothing how do established companies expect this from people? Harper’s Bazaar could have paid that girl come on son. I understand if it was a start-up/small business or if she was just committed to 20 hrs a week and had time for a 2nd job but no. 40 or more is very regular. Interns are the 21st century slave. How else can you explain free labor? It’s our will to do it bc we need the experience but bc of that interns are exploited. At this point interns need to wise up, get the experience and hire there damn selves and be that greedy company’s competition. Ppl I know have had 7 internships with no hires. And this article blames the little guys? I am disappointed.

  • Amberella

    Poor girl. And now that she has filed this suit, she’ll probably never work in the industry. What you commenters have to realize is that unlike the internships in other fields you all have mentioned (science, law), this is the fashion industry. It’s one of the most popular and cutthroat industries to work in. For every person wanting to get into the industry but aren’t willing to deal with that type of treatment, there’s thousands of others who’ll suck it up to land that entry level job.

  • http://www.facebook.com/X23sexy Wong Chia Chi

    It goes both ways. Maybe the reason you aren’t seeking out opportunities is because all your time is spent running errands, or sorting through millions of pieces of jeweler.

    WTF is that supposed to help you learn exactly?

    And I’d be pissed too. She did not have to do that. She was being used as a disposable slave. Period. And just because she wasn’t being beaten or sexually harassed that doesn’t make it right.

    Also, entitlement is expecting the free labor in my opinion. Nobody deserves shit for free. You want my work? Pay me then. I’m not a slave.

    And as bad as the economy is a magazine like Harper’s, would be helping if they gave some unemployed people jobs. They can afford to.

    This kind of attitude, people will start being treated like they’re slaves the way that labor laws are being abused and ignored.

  • Amber Loney

    (((This is long, but please read it…I will tell you why this author is completely ignorant about the entire situation.)))

    Here is the deal: THIS.ECONOMY.SUCKS.A.LOT. We, as young people, are NOT having it easy at all, not that we expect that or even want it. We just want to survive. Why people think everything is just a walk in the park is beyond me. Let’s look at things in detail shall we?

    1. You enter elementary school. You learn your shapes, abc’s, 123′s, and you are happy. You make friends, you learn your basics. Every night you go home, your parents are too busy arguing with each other they could care less about your achievements.

    2. You get into middle-school. Being smart is dumb and being dumb means you’re popular. You still have to somehow think to yourself without help that it is more important that you focus on your studies than trying not to get made fun of, get beat up by kids who make fun of you, have no friends, and sit at lunches alone…and no one, not even your teachers tell you how important it is you understand what’s coming up next…

    3. High school comes along, everyone puts more emphasis on your “new found high school freedom” than the fact that what you do in this school will determine what you get for the rest of your life. No one helps you with college unless you are going to one of three schools that have partnered with your high school. You are placed on a track that you cannot escape once placed on it. That track will determine if you are a doctor (AP classes and honors classes and scholarships), you are someone’s corporate secretary (middle ground classes that most people take), you are a laborer (specialized classes like mechanics, carpentry, or construction core), or you are the shit stain in someone’s greasy restaurant who is destined to only draw social security (passing you through so you can just get out of high school while teachers pretend to be your buddies). No one warns you about the economy, no one tells you how to behave socially (everything you do is allowed), and people passively suggest that things will be hard if they do at all and not offer solutions. Your parents are not an active part of your education.

    4. You make it out, and even if you were honors everything, you realize that you don’t have enough money to afford college. Your parents can barely support you. If you so happen to start a family soon after high school, people will try to make it harder for you than it really is by withholding opportunities from you to “teach you a lesson” you clearly don’t need because they didn’t teach you the important stuff in the beginning. You switch majors twice because each time, the departments fed you lies and mislead you and you realize you don’t want that career, then you’re stuck looking at the labor statistics, or the job outlooks to see what will provide you a living, even if you don’t want to do it. You settle on something finally and then also realize that you are drowning in loan debt by this time and are not sure how you will make a living while you are in school. Eventually, staying with your parents is becoming a strain, and you may need to find somewhere to go, but lack credit, life skills, and experience for meaningful or decently paying jobs. You study your ass off in class. Your teachers seem optimistic at first, THEN they start to get quiet towards time for your class to graduate, making your classmates question if there is really any jobs out there for them. You find out you need experience for everything, and you simply don’t have it and have no way to get it. Your loans are due in four months, you need a job before you can get the required experience for the job you’ve invested in. You take an internship as a last ditch effort. It is a relief to you, then you realize it is unpaid and you have to balance that, the remainder of school, your existing job, and surviving. You’re still happy because you hope that three-four months on an internship will provide enough experience…it doesn’t normally. You end up STILL without a job and paying your loans anyway because they come due. You were treated poorly by your employer (who doesn’t have to pay you, na na na na bo bo…), and left not knowing what to do, or if you’ll ever get a freaking career. You are without hope, you can’t start a family because you can’t provide for them, and if you have one, you worry every night about their well-being.

    THIS IS WHY THIS ARTICLE IS WRONG. IT SHOULD NOT BE THIS WAY. NO ONE SHOULD BE TREATED THIS WAY. I am a college student. I do not deserve to be treated like a slave after I have already suffered. I have worked hard all my life, never done anything horrible. Always been kind, yet I always get spit on, and I don’t think that you are right to suggest we should just roll over on our backs for these pompous employers to get no pay and no job prospects, not even a good word! Especially when starvation, homelessness, and debt is looming over our heads and we are not even 30. We deserve better!

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