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Ternin’ Around

Opinion | September 27, 2011

Becky Plante

Mike spent his vacation leading kayak trips in Minnesota. Taylor and Josh traveled to France with Tufts in Talloires. How did I spend my summer vacation? Sitting in a sticky Staples office chair, staring at a computer screen full of endless data about the music industry. Every Tuesday and Thursday,  I rode my bike to Davis Square to work a 10-5 shift at The Echo Nest, a self-proclaimed “music intelligence company that powers smarter music applications.” As a rising junior, I had decided that my summers spent as a lifeguard should become a thing of the past.

Advisors, parents, and the motivational staff at Career Services insisted that I gain workplace experience and career connections that would help me enter my industry of choice. But when it came down to choosing my internship, I couldn’t help but consider other, more personal factors. Despite the obvious importance of choosing an internship that was practical for the near-distant future, I couldn’t help but consider the immediate draw of a personally stimulating and fulfilling work environment. Despite the fact that it was unpaid, The Echo Nest promised this.

However, after a month of sitting in a stuffy cubicle for hours on end, researching everything from the length of Metallica’s career to the tempo of “Thriller,” I began to wonder: were the benefits of my unpaid internship worth the sacrifices.

The Obama administration agreed with my mid-summer crisis. Last spring the state department announced that they would be investigating unpaid summer internships for wage law violations, a course of action spurred by the inevitably changing nature of summer internships. In the wake of today’s struggling economy, rarely are current internships actually direct paths to employment. Instead, as paid internships become increasingly less attainable, unpaid summer internships have become a common way for college students to pad a resume and become competitive candidates in the impending job hunt . The result? A willingness to do what may be considered free labor in exchange for the mere privilege of saying you have relevant experience under your belt. The Obama Administration is seeking to check private-sector companies who it feels are exploiting the enthusiasm and ambition of college students for their own gain.

So when I found myself feeling drained after two weeks at The Echo Nest, I began to realize that the practical rewards I had shied away from might have been a little too important to ignore. The work became repetitive, the spreadsheets felt mundane, and I realized that my impressive Tufts education and academic skills had little significance in my day-to-day work tasks. A pat on the back from the company’s CEO seemed like chump change for the hard work I was putting in.  I was left to wonder: had I accepted an unpaid position too willingly? Was it all worth it, knowing that a paycheck, or at least a potential long-term job offer, wasn’t waiting for me at the end of the day?

But in time, I began to realize that the questions I was asking were all the wrong ones. Regardless of what the counselors at Career Services (who are some of the unsung heroes of this campus) or the tangible rewards my parents told me that I should gain my internship, what I chose to take away from the experience was far more important. While the work felt a bit dull at times, I soon realized that the company was using my number-compiling and online research to pioneer large projects that were nationally recognized. The line on my resume doesn’t mean much to me right now, but knowing that I helped create the database Clear Channel uses for their iheartradio service? That means a lot. Regardless of the fact that I didn’t make a cent, I would choose The Echo Nest again in a second. I don’t feel that way because of the resume boost or the contact e-mail addresses I acquired but because I had the unique opportunity to join an exciting, fast-paced company that resonated with my personal interests and encouraged me to grow. Worrying about labor laws or selecting an internship based on a hefty paycheck can hinder the possibility of an engaging, personally rewarding internship experience.

So no, I didn’t get anything concrete out of working at The Echo Nest. Instead I got the chance to actively participate in a completely new, innovative work environment and see what it had to offer. I didn’t make any money and they didn’t offer me a job, but it sure as hell beat sitting in a lifeguard chair all day.