Katro: Investing in unpaid internships

Katro discusses the value of commuting for unpaid internships.

Esther Katro

Esther KatroI spent $1,645.25 in three semesters total commuting to unpaid internships. While I could have purchased a lot of textbooks for my classes with that money, I decided investing in myself to grow personally and professionally is the best investment a young college student can make.

Last spring, I saw the row of colored flags along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway slowly align themselves around the square as I headed to intern at NBC News in Rockefeller Plaza. I was commuting to New York City at eye level with the leaves of the trees along the highway, riding in a double-decker Megabus.

My day started in Philadelphia on a train to 30th Street Station, a ride on the dark bus until the sun rose and finally a trek on the overcrowded New York subway to Midtown, Manhattan. It became a comfortable routine eventually, despite the hours it required – lather, rinse, repeat every other day of the week for 16 months.

According to USA Today, the average national one-way daily commute is 25.5 minutes. So my “mega-commute” of a one-way trip of almost three  hours puts me at about six times the average time spent getting to work.

Not only that, but this was all for an unpaid internship. Yet despite the financial and time commitment, I don’t regret making the commute. College is about leaving comfort zones and bettering oneself for the professional world, so in my opinion, it was a worthy investment.

Heather O’Donnell, a junior economics major, always took a SEPTA bus to a finance office in Lower Merion Township. She said she learned the hard way that unpaid interns are still expected to adhere to the rules and guidelines of paid, working professionals.

“I called my intern coordinator this summer to complain about my severe stomach pain,” O’Donnell said. “He told me that I still have to come in because it didn’t sound like a good enough excuse for a sick day. Turns out, my appendix ruptured on that bus and I still worked the full day.”

Commuting is just another reality of the professional world. While working in extreme pain is unreasonable, spending part of the day getting to work is expected. As interns, students can become accustomed to the traveling.

My commute between Washington and Philly, on the other hand, was a unique experience. The nation’s capital is a working town – I rode the metro with my intern colleagues during peak hours, our laughter and chatter amidst people maneuvering their morning papers at different angles to decipher small fonts.

Through my commute alone, I grew as a professional. I left the college bubble of being surrounded by young people and learned from the presence of working professionals.

Apart from commuting to and from an internship, I also had to take public transportation around the city to run personal and business errands. Though many interns may consider this a menial task, I enjoyed accomplishing something Siri can’t do: map and efficiently time out a long list of intern errands.

My experience with commuting and having to book my own public transportation even helped me schedule flights and train rides for employers at my internships. During the time of the Kermit Gosnell Case, MSNBC anchor Craig Melvin stood up from his cubicle and asked the newsroom if anyone knew the best way to get to Center City in Philadelphia. I immediately suggested 30th Street Station, which I walked through on each commute home.

He then asked me to book his ticket – the responsibilities of an intern truly know no bounds.

One day while running errands in New York City for my internship, I couldn’t help but stare at a woman in a fashionable fur coat reading a book to her daughter on the subway. I thought back to one winter day when I was 6 years old, ice skating below the building I now work in, looking up at the gold statue below Rockefeller Center as I wobbled atop two thin blades. Without my willingness to travel, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in the environment that was a fantasy to me as a child.

While they may get repetitive, costly and difficult to manage, the experience and the people you will meet and see along the way will make 5 a.m. Megabus rides worth it. I’m glad I still have the childhood imagination and perseverance to glide around working capitals of the world and get out of bed each time the work may seem too hard or early.

Esther Katro can be reached at esther.katro@temple.edu.

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