Is an Unpaid Internship Worthwhile for International Students?

By Larissa Gao

During the pandemic, when many internship programs have been canceled, I couldn’t find paid internships, just like many other students. However, unlike American students, I have to pay for my unpaid internship experiences.

I just got an unpaid internship in the fall semester. As an international student with an F-1 visa, if I get paid, off-campus internships, I have to apply for Curricular Practical Training (CPT), which gives international students authorization to gain employment experiences. Or my internship would be considered as the illegal employment. Even though my internship is unpaid, my advisor at the International Center highly recommends applying for CPT to ensure not to violate my status.

However, if I want to get my CPT approved, I must enroll in one course that has at least one credit hour even if I don’t need this credit at all. Therefore, I not only get no financial pay but also pay about $1,000 for this experience.

I told my friends about the whole process and said that I was still willing to pay for my unpaid experience. Nearly all my friends asked me “is it worthwhile?” I believe different people have different answers to this question based on their own situations. For me, the answer is absolutely “yes.”

At first, though money is very important, the working experience I can get from the internship is much more important for me. I get more opportunities to work in the real world, which helps me be more prepared before I graduate. Also, the experience builds my resume. Even though I cannot find paid internships now, I am more likely to get one with my new resume. After all, all people started working from small positions.

Second, I can connect with more people at the unpaid internship. In other words, I can make friends. To be honest, it is difficult for me to make friends right now due to the pandemic. I don’t have many in-person classes and I cannot go to events to talk with people. The unpaid internship gives me a chance to meet more people. By talking with my co-workers, I am happier than I was when I stayed at home alone.

Last but not least, I can afford to pay $1,000. Thanks to my paid job I got last semester, I have enough money to pay for my tuition while not experiencing financial difficulties. Although I may not be able to buy everything I want to buy, it is not a big issue. During this time, I may learn more about money management.

Therefore, if you are also an international student and have trouble deciding whether to have an unpaid internship or not, please consider your personal situations, such as your budget and your expectation for your career.

For international students, who cannot afford the amount of money, I would suggest that you give up this unpaid opportunity. This is because you could be extremely stressed with no money and being far away from your family. Stress can lead to many illnesses and health is always the most important issue.

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