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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Messy Questions, Messy Answers

July-August 2011

Some questions reveal more in the asking than in the answering. As I ranted about the impracticalities of unpaid internships, a friend interrupted, “Can you be on welfare if you’re working an unpaid internship?” 

Can you? The question was so absurd in its juxtaposition of privilege and poverty, the only proper response was to laugh. “It’s never even occurred to me,” I said. (All those ways to eke out a living that had occurred to me as I was sending my résumé to the land of unpaid internships, a.k.a. New York City, and this was not one of them.) My curiosity piqued, I began asking this question over dinner. The responses of fellow students were similar to my own: Um… haha…I wonder. When I posed the question to Gail Gilmore, arts career counselor at the Office of Career Services for more than 13 years, she looked equally surprised: “No one has ever asked me that before.” Even my foremost authority on all other matters, Google, was no help on this one. The search term, “unpaid internship welfare” yielded no relevant hits. 

The answer to the question is beside the point—more telling is why the question seemed so strange in the first place. For one, it runs counter to the very spirit of social-welfare programs, as the unpaid intern’s lack of income is usually a choice. Although unpaid positions at prestigious magazines or nonprofits lack financial compensation, they offer cultural capital, which in turn operates in a completely different paradigm from welfare. To equate the “poverty” of a Harvard graduate who has chosen an unpaid internship to real poverty, in fact, feels distasteful. Although I never had any plans to apply for welfare, I was always a tinge embarrassed asking the question, in case people thought that I did. 

Socioeconomic class runs as an undercurrent through Harvard. At its meritocratic ideal, college is meant to be an equalizer, but achieving that goal is not just a matter of making college affordable through financial aid, because socioeconomic class is manifest in the myriad large and small lifestyle choices that undergraduates make. Harvard does recognize this. Unlike most other universities, it charges the same room and board regardless of whether you’re living in a cramped walkthrough or the top floor of Leverett tower, and it has only one dining plan, which offers the same food to everyone. Of course, indicators of socioeconomic status exist that can’t be erased by any official technique short of mandating institutional conformity: how often you eat out, where you go for spring break, whether you know how to act at fancy events, how you decorate a dorm room, what you can afford to leave behind as trash when you move out of that dorm room. (Working dorm crew after the May move-out, I found designer clothes and whole sets of perfectly nice furniture.) 

But even if Harvard cannot provide a completely level playing field, it can provide a lever. Regardless of your parents’ income, you can, if you so choose, go into a career that pays in the 90th percentile straight out of college. 

At the same time I was grumbling about unpaid internships, I had friends from the same middle-class background who were planning a very different type of postgraduate New York life. They had lived there the previous summer, completing the internships that led to their imminent Wall Street jobs. They called brokers to rent Manhattan apartments and self-consciously protested that half their five-figure signing bonus went for taxes—a sum that still amounted to several months’ salary for an entry-level editorial assistant. I sensed our lifestyles diverging.

 

My chosen field of journalism, science journalism more specifically, is not selected for its lucrative opportunities. With real life impending during my senior year, I began to see my lack of future income as a point of pride. I thought I was being practical, too: reading recipes for “poor porridge” (oatmeal, chopped vegetables, and any leftovers from the fridge) and stringing together four jobs to save money. But I was also romanticizing being young and poor. Hunger took on an electrifying meaning—to want something strongly enough to be willing to go hungry for it. I believed my choice to be truer for the suffering that was likely to come. Of course the only hunger I actually experienced was quickly alleviated by a trip to the dining hall or the Kong. 

A friend once told me that my interest in writing had everything to do with status. I looked at him skeptically: “What status? I’m never going to make any money.” But if I couldn’t admit it then, I do admit it now. Although careers in journalism and the arts rarely pay well, they generally carry prestige that a similarly paid blue-collar job does not. 

To reconcile myself to my likely lack of future financial compensation, I developed an allergic reaction to certain high-salaried jobs, such as finance and medicine. These were also the fields that I, as the child of Chinese immigrants, felt not so subtly pushed into—and not just by my parents. When my Chinese dentist found out that I studied neurobiology at Harvard, she remarked, “You’re going to med school, right? You’ll make so much money as a doctor!” I protested against her fingers, firmly lodged in my mouth, but she took my ambiguous grunting as a yes. 

My romanticizing of being poor and my desire for a job with cultural capital were both, I came to realize, reflections of my own privilege. Socioeconomic class manifests itself also in how one decides on a career. It is very easy to be damning of people who seem to have a shallow and greedy fixation on money. A housemate described one such kid, who wore only T-shirts from recruiting fairs and whose one goal in life was a six-figure salary. It turned out that he was supporting his single mother and younger sibling. His obsession with money was not greedy but merely practical.

 

Most of my close friends are academics and artists whose chosen careers have no guarantee of financial stability. This probably does reflect a bias, conscious or not, on my part. But those friends who come from lower- or middle-class backgrounds have all expressed anxiety about the worthiness and practicality of their chosen paths. Lack of money makes us realize money’s true value. 

I always thought my parents were unimaginative when they told me to consider finance or medicine, but now I realize they were being practical. Because these careers have a delineated path, they are actually the most meritocratic: if you jump properly through a series of hoops, success awaits at the end. In contrast, careers in journalism and the arts are governed much more by lucky breaks and personal connections. My parents did not belong to that stratum of society where they could call a friend and get me an internship at the Wall Street Journal (as happened to someone I know). Of course, who and what you know both matter in all professions, but one or the other matters more in different jobs. 

My father came to the United States with less than $100 in his pocket, and, understandably, financial stability was my parents’ main concern. Thanks to that, I largely grew up in middle-class comfort. This allowed me to concern myself with going to museums and reading the right kinds of books, which my parents encouraged to some extent, even if they recognized none of the artists’ or authors’ names. What I desired was capital of the cultural kind. Being able to afford an unpaid internship reflects privilege, but the very notion that you can choose the type of career where unpaid internships are the norm reflects a kind of privilege, too. 

I did try to find out whether unpaid interns are eligible for welfare, but the answer is messy, varying state by state and program by program. As to why we choose the careers we do—that answer is messy, too. 

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