During my internship program this summer, my fellow interns and I gathered in The Huffington Post offices, talking to former Princeton Dean of Religious Life (and current HuffPo Religion editor) Paul Raushenbush. He had answered all of our questions about the religious angle of HuffPo, the spiritual climate of New York City, and the challenges of working with religion in a country that calls itself secular. We had run out of things to share. There was a small pause, and then Raushenbush said to us, “Talk to me about what this summer has taught you about vocation.”
We were silent. I personally hadn’t thought about vocation in so many words all summer. I had, though, raged against internships. Something in this rage was intimately connected with my desire to do something that felt “right,” like a vocation should, and internships just felt “wrong.” The idea of spending the summer doing work that’s by definition awful and then using that experience as motivation for ascending the corporate ladder was infuriating to me. It seemed — and still does — a backward system: Companies literally exploit their interns and then these interns come back for more. I have no idea why I’m supposed to want this white-collar type of success when the ways of getting there seem immoral and dishonest and downright unpleasant.
Beyond my personal distaste for internships, it’s not like Princeton’s emphasis on them is that beneficial. When I have an unpaid internship, I’m not actually doing anything for my future. According to a 2012 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, if I get a paid internship (which is highly unlikely for someone who wants to be a writer), I have a 60 percent chance of being hired. If I have an unpaid internship, I have a 37 percent chance. If I have no internship at all, though, I still have a 36 percent chance of getting hired by the same company. This is because — as the study explains — companies don’t want to hire unpaid interns because they’ll only have “clerical” experience. So the work a company asks you to do in your internship — menial, boring tasks you have to do because everybody else is a paid professional and their work has value — is therefore irrelevant. Honestly, it makes sense: If a company decides my labor is not worth paying for the first time around, they’re not going to pay me for it in the future.
Maybe this is because, however, the kinds of internships I am pushed toward are not the “right” kinds of internships for me. This summer, I took an internship that was out of the way of what I (and my parents) thought I “should” be doing, and I absolutely loved it. I was a part of a new program from the Office of Religious Life and the Pace Center called the Interfaith Summer Internship Program, and I had been placed with a volunteer-run bookshop in Washington Heights. My co-workers were other volunteers who actually treated me like an equal. I had a flexible, open schedule, and I had an independent project that occupied most of my time and, above all, I — like everyone else — was happy to be there, committed to the cause.
But Princeton was funding my summer. The real volunteers were not so lucky: This was an after-work volunteer commitment for most of them, and they needed other ways to pay the bills. They were all free-thinking, artistically minded people; they challenged conventional ideas of success, disagreed with many a bureaucratic, capitalist notion and — somehow — were self-sufficient. And that is not something Princeton shows me enough. Princeton applauds hard work and ambition, the successful ascension of the corporate ladder, the high-flying political career. No one ever, really, asks me to think about what Paul did when he asked about vocation: Will I be able to spend my life doing something that makes me happy? Do I even know what that is?
I didn’t answer him, but the people I met this summer could have. They had all kinds of careers; they were writers and teachers, freelance artists and tutors, editors and welders. Some of them were only employed sporadically, and some still lived at home. But that didn’t matter to them or define them: What mattered was their art. That was their real job, an option that I hadn’t even realized I had before this summer. By prioritizing their craft, they somehow had figured out a way to make a living and a home in one of the most expensive and exciting cities in the world, to be engaged in their community and to seem pretty darn happy about it— and that is success enough for me.
Susannah Sharpless is a religion major from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.