So Your Summer Internship is Unpaid or Low-Paid? Don’t Worry, Widener Can Help

Hilary Bentman, Associate Director of Communications
Student Kelvin Smith stands in front of an American flag and a House of Representatives flag
Kelvin Smith ’24, who is interning with a New Jersey congressman, is part of the Experience MORE! program.

Catherine Vincent ’23 dreams of one day being a diplomat and working overseas.

The international relations and French major knew a summer internship with a nonprofit organization or NGO (non-government organization) would be great experience and a key résumé builder.

“Those positions are very competitive,” said Vincent, “and typically unpaid.” 

Vincent landed an internship with the nonprofit Organization for International Cooperation. But, as she feared, there was no salary.

That last part was going to be a deal-breaker.

Headshot of student Catherine Vincent
Catherine Vincent '23

Like many college students, the rising senior relies on summer jobs to earn money for living expenses. She was staring down the prospect of forgoing the internship in her field and instead returning to a job at a local restaurant.

Thankfully for Vincent, and other Widener students in her shoes, she doesn’t have to make that choice. This year, the university is piloting a new program called Experience MORE!, which helps financially support students who have unpaid or underpaid internships.

The program is donor-funded; trustee vice chair and alumna Cynthia Sarnoski ’74 contributed the first and largest gift to date.

In its first year, eight students are being supported with $3,000 to $5,000 each. These students have either secured unpaid internships or underpaid internships (earning less than $15 an hour).

Widener is piloting Experience MORE! with the College of Arts & Sciences (A&S), with a particular focus on students pursuing the humanities and social sciences. That’s because organizations in these areas – unlike the sciences, engineering, or business – are more likely to offer unpaid or underpaid internships; often times nonprofit organizations, for example, simply don’t have the budget to pay interns.

But Widener understands the inherent value of hands-on opportunities like internships, and university officials believe pay – or the lack thereof – should not be a roadblock in students gaining these transformational experiences. 

“The research shows that an internship is the number one variable in students getting a job,” said Janet Long, executive director of Widener’s Career Design & Development, which is partnering with A&S on Experience MORE!. “It’s not fair to not have the opportunity to do the very thing that will help them get employed. We’re supporting the students who need it most.”

Experience MORE! involves a competitive application process. Students, who are responsible for finding their own internship, submit résumés and a budget for how they might spend the money. A committee of faculty and staff members select the awardees.

International relations major and Liberia native Kelvin Smith ’24 has always had a keen interest in the U.S. Congress and how it works. He decided to apply for a congressional internship, and landed one in U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross’s Cherry Hill, New Jersey office.

But the two-day-a-week internship – which involves assisting constituents, attending townhall meetings, and more – pays only a $600 stipend. Smith applied for, and got admitted, into Experience MORE!.

“I am really grateful for this Experience MORE! opportunity,” said Smith, who hopes to attend law school and work in public service. “Coming from Liberia, we don’t have opportunities like this. I am so thankful to the people who came up with this idea.” 

Experience MORE! is the result of a collaboration between A&S, Career Design and Development, and University Advancement. The program got off the ground this year thanks to the generosity of Sarnoski, a stalwart supporter of the university, who has pledged $500,000 to Widener over five years for an endowed internship fund. To date, $100,000 is in hand, and a significant portion of that amount was used to pilot Experience MORE! this year.

Sarnoski, who earned her Widener degree in chemistry, has typically directed her financial support over the years to the sciences. But she understands the importance of outside-the-classroom experiences for students of all academic pursuits, to “enrich their overall marketability and overall self-awareness about the skills and talents needed in the work environment.”

Sarnoski added: “As a Widener alum, I really appreciate my college experiences and value the impact on my career. As a hiring manager, internship experience was often a deciding factor.”

Other donors have followed Sarnoski in supporting this program, including Trustee Tonie Leatherberry, and encourage others to do the same.

Experience MORE! is more than a paycheck. The program includes an orientation program in the spring to help students perfect their résumés and cover letters as they seek internships. The students in this first cohort also offered support and assistance to each other. Following their internship, the students will showcase their experience to campus, sharing what they’ve learned.

Experience MORE! is also helping students think about how their majors and academic interests may translate to careers, especially majors that don’t always have a direct line to a job.

“Coming into this kind of program allows them to think about the real world,” said Nicole Rayfield, former assistant dean in A&S. “It’s not the image of the starving artist. It’s here are the set of skills I developed. How is this portrayed in the marketplace? How can I take my passion and monetize it? It’s an early reality check and one of the best takeaways.”

The goal is to expand Experience MORE! to more students and other majors. Ultimately, the university would love to attract enough donors to create a program that guarantees financial support to any student who wants a summer internship but cannot secure a paid one, said Terry Travis, vice president of University Advancement.

As Vincent begins her summer internship, she’s hoping Experience MORE! continues for years to come, and would like to lend her financial support to the program in the future so the next generation of Widener students can reap its benefits, as well. 

“This is an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I want to try my best to add to this fund eventually. I definitely want to pay it forward.”

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