Scholarship fills financial gap for students in unpaid internships

With help from Mason's Unpaid Internship Scholarship, psychology major Jennifer Lyon has been able to intern with the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services.

It’s a rite of passage that’s often intrinsic to the college experience: being an intern. The benefits of pursuing a dream internship can be substantial—including exposure to the field, to the workplace, and to a network of professional contacts. But the practicalities of an unpaid internship, which can involve as many hours as a full-time job, can stop many students from going beyond just looking at the position description.

Enter Mason’s University Career Services and the Unpaid Internship Scholarship. Established in 2017 with a grant from the University Life Parents Fund, the scholarship provides direct support to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing unpaid internships in the fall or spring semesters or in the summer term.

Given that many internships in desirable fields remain unpaid—including in the federal government, nonprofit organizations, and many medical opportunities—the funding means that students eager to take advantage of these professional experiences can do so, regardless of their financial situation.

Art history major Noelia Montecinos-Beltran wants to be a museum curator. With the help of the Unpaid Internship Scholarship, she is currently interning with Mason Exhibitions. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services.

The experience they gain is crucial to improving their employment outlook after graduation.

“We know that most employers are looking for 6 to 12 months of [related] experience, even for a fresh graduate with a bachelor’s,” says Kristin Leonato, associate director of strategic initiatives at University Career Services.

So far, 50 students have received a total of $70,000 in scholarships for their unpaid internships. On Giving Day this year, board leadership for the Alumni Association supported this program through a matching gift and raised an additional $12,379 as of April 24.

According to Leonato and Mary Claire Kraft, manager of employer outreach at University Career Services, the funding makes a real difference, given that the average cost of an unpaid internship to a student is about $6,000, to include everything from transportation and housing to purchasing professional attire.

Austin McManus, BA History ’17, MA History ’18, was one of the first students to benefit from the scholarship. The scholarship helped pay for his housing in Washington, D.C., where he interned for the History Office at the National Archives.

“[The internship was] an incredible experience that allowed me to apply my knowledge of public history in the classroom to a real history office environment,” he said.

Kraft says that this type of experiential learning is exactly what employers want to see.

“When you give employers a list of all the different types of experiential learning that Mason students have the opportunity to participate in, they are nearly always going to pick direct experience on-site in their industry as the No. 1 preferred item on the resume.”