Most college students with internships are hungry. For connections. For opportunities. For real food they can eat.
They flock to Washington each summer to fulfill internships in fields they hope to enter after graduation. Smart interns know to keep their eyes on the prize — that's the doughnut, not the hole. Each day is one day closer to a good job after graduation.
In the meantime, for most interns, the experience means a big hole in their wallets, particularly for students who intern for low or no pay in the public sector. For example, only 9% of congressional offices advertise paid internships, according to a study done by Pay Our Interns, an organization pushing for paid internships in government and the nonprofit sector.
So with free food as their goal, interns track promotions online, follow Twitter for news of pop-up giveaways and scour local listings for events where the makings of a meal can be had.
Ice cream social
That's how Andrew Peng, a rising junior at Rutgers University, who is studying political science and strategic public communication at the school in Brunswick, New Jersey, found himself at a July 9 ice cream social co-hosted by Muslim Advocates and Latham and Watkins LLP, a Washington law firm.
"We were delighted to bring together interns from all walks of life to make connections and learn more about Muslim Advocates," said Hani Almadhoun, director of development for Muslim Advocates, a civil rights organization.
"It's a win-win. We learn from their ideas and benefit from their energy, and they come back understanding how vital they are to keeping movements like ours going," she said, adding, "They must have been hungry, too, since they ate all of our ice cream."
Peng, an intern at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), tracks "various free food events" throughout Washington.
On July 8, he scored a free sandwich during the 15th annual Chick-fil-A Cow Appreciation Day for wearing a cow-patterned accessory. Two other AAJC interns, Tauheed Islam, 21, of Atlanta, Georgia, who is studying political science and government at Harvard University, and Dieu Linh Nguyen, 21, from Vietnam's Hai Phong, a rising senior at Beloit College in Wisconsin with a double major in media studies and critical identities studies, also cow-accessorized and accompanied Peng.
Interns flocked to another event on July 8, a resume writing and interview workshop hosted by the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL) in preparation for an Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander career fair on July 19.
CAPAL provided pasta salad, mac and cheese, spaghetti with prawns and a vegan option.
"Free food is definitely a great attraction to our potential audience," said Felicia Wong, the CAPAL program manager. The nonprofit organizes a series of professional events each summer, and most of the participants are doing unpaid summer internships in the federal agencies.
"Most of our events are at lunch- or dinnertime, and we usually offer free food at the events to cater their needs," Wong said. "Our largest events can have around 120 to 130 people to attend."
Options 'always decent'
Peng, a regular CAPAL diner, said the options varied by event and location and were "always decent."
Kim Dong-hyun, a rising senior at Korea's Kyungpook National University, is an intern with a microbiology research project. He eats globally by attending open house embassy events, and he also checks out receptions hosted by large research organizations, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to get food for thought and food for his stomach.
So far this summer, Kim's favorites have been sushi provided by the Japanese Embassy and a German Embassy spread that included "fulfilling" pumpernickel bread.
"We are certainly glad when our guests enjoy the food that we serve!" Matthias Wehler, spokesman for the German Embassy wrote in an email with the signature logo "Wunderbar together l Germany and the U.S." "If a guest arrives hungry and leaves full, all the better — no matter what the professional background of that person may be."
Wehler pointed out that in Germany, universities are tuition-free and offer subsidized meals at canteens. "However, money is still an issue when you're a student, of course, so it is fair to say that a free meal is usually gratefully received,” he said.
That is certainly true for Kim and other interns. "Seventy percent of the money I get comes from my family," said Kim, who took a part-time job "before coming here to make money for my living here."
Gen Slosberg, 20, a rising junior at the University of California-Berkeley studying political science, said just getting to the events with free food can stress a budget, because commuting to an internship in the D.C. area is expensive.
"In D.C., there is a mindset and expectation that everyone has to go through a stage of unpaid internships," said Peng, who has a paid internship at home simultaneously so he can afford the cost of living in the U.S. capital.
In 2008, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found "that 50% of graduating students had held some kind of internship during their college career, up from the 17% shown in a 1992 study by Northwestern University." The findings were quoted in a report by Intern Bridge Inc., a college recruiting, consulting and research firm.
"I appreciate that I can be privileged and lucky enough to afford the internship experience here," Peng said. "I won't complain about not getting paid because I understand that the money my organization could have used to pay me can go to their other programming efforts and lawsuits, which is in the public interest. However, many other students who cannot afford unpaid internships might not even apply to these positions in the first place."
Survey of students
According to a survey of more than 27,000 students from 234 colleges nationwide conducted by Intern Bridge, students from high-income families are more likely to accept unpaid internships than those from a low-income background. This means a more limited choice for those who are less well off to advance their professional careers.
Guillermo Cremer, co-founder of Pay Our Interns, told VOA, "When organizations don't offer paid internships, they close the doors for a certain amount of people who can't afford the opportunities financially. Our goal is to make sure that the opportunities are available for all, and it's really about the diversity and inclusion in workplaces."
"It's definitely a structural problem," said Slosberg, the intern from Berkeley. "The public sector and the nonprofits are about uplifting the vulnerable communities. Offering paid internships is really the least they can do to attract students with low-income parents to pursue these opportunities and advance their career."
Ying Fu is studying economics and math at Columbia University, which fed him pizza squares and brownie bites at a Washington networking event earlier this month. As an intern with VOA's Mandarin service, he received a $100 monthly metro pass. His family covered all other expenses connected with his work experience.