Ah, the summer internship. For many students, it’s the first opportunity to see what working a “real” job is like. Sometimes students have great experiences, but more often, internships yield mixed results. Students quickly realize that the working world can be ridiculous, and begin applying for grad school. Here, we present outrageous experiences across generations. From story to story, they have much to teach.
Some internships can quickly reveal the working world to be absurd, even Kafkaesque. Oren Rosenthal, now a software engineer in Austin, Texas, got an internship at a computer company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between his sophomore and junior years at Cornell University. As soon as he started, the company experienced massive layoffs, so the interns had scant supervision. He ended up occupying a plush corner office with a view of Kendall Square for the entire summer, ducking out early at least 20 times to catch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.
“One day a VP walked into my office and asked how the hell I’d gotten it,” Rosenthal says, “and then said he was going to apply for the office himself.”
Rosenthal learned an important lesson at that internship. Corporate life can be weird and absurd, and businesses can quickly veer sideways. People come and go. Companies come and go. Tasks and entire departments can fall through the cracks for a while.
Rosenthal didn’t break any rules by snagging that posh corner office overlooking prime Boston real-estate. He just stepped through a huge loophole created for him by circumstance. If that happens to you, work the angles. Even if you end up being a super-slacker, you still might end up walking out of there with an excellent recommendation. Many people have built excellent careers on such coincidental foundations.
For Riley McIntyre, now a senior at Portland State University, an internship gave her a great idea of how not to spend her life. She signed on as an intern for a U.S. Congressional campaign in Vancouver, Washington. They promised her four college credits and at least $4,000 in pay, neither of which she ever received.
On her first day, the campaign sent her out to canvas in a rural district. Seven guys came out of a convenience store and started cat-calling her so aggressively that she had to take refuge in a nearby church. After that, the campaign sent her out with a male canvassing partner, but they still split up at one point.
“I knocked on a door,” she says, “and a man answered it completely naked. He told me, ‘Oh, sorry, I was just riding my bike.’ I dropped a pamphlet on his doorstep and ran away.”
Then her boss quit, and her new boss began inappropriately inviting her into his office to “watch movies.” Finally, after it became clear the campaign wasn’t going to pay her, McIntyre quit. Her boss immediately asked her out on a date. Michelle Obama had been Barack Obama’s boss on an internship, he said, and he was hoping they’d be the next Obamas.
“I got away,” McIntyre says. “Honestly, I never want to do anything to do with politics ever again. It was one hell of a summer. I definitely resented everything I did in that job.”
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McIntyre says the amount of harassment she met with on that job surprised her. Her experience with the creepy guys on the street could have happened to anyone, in any job, but her supervisor’s behavior was completely unacceptable. She says that she didn’t expect treatment like that from someone who shared her politics, but quickly learned that sexual harassment doesn’t follow political or ideological lines.
If you’re on an internship and a supervisor is making you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to report them to a superior. If there’s no one above the supervisor, then you have every right to quit. The world is full of internships and work opportunities, most of them staffed by people who can act completely neutral in a work setting or better yet, as outright champions and mentors.
Mia McCullough, a successful Chicago playwright, spent a summer off from Northwestern University working at MTV Studios in New York Internships, she says, “are opportunities for the privileged,” among which she counts herself. “It was cool and lame at the same time,” she says. “I’m pretty sure they hired me as eye candy. They didn’t ask us to do much. The most interesting part was reading the fan mail, which inspired the first produced play I wrote.”
At the highest levels, people in the media business make decisions that can make or break corporations. In the middle tier, producers are caught up in the exciting day-to-day machinations of feeding the entertainment and information machine. But interns are like the first line of defense between that machine and the public. No matter how dumb the work you get asked to do, never say “that’s not my job,” advice that will serve you well in whatever work you end up doing.
As an intern, your main duty is to literally bear witness to how the sausage gets made. It can lead some people straight into the belly of the bear, and it can lead others, like McCullough, to seek alternative careers in the arts. But even the seemingly dumbest experiences can lead to inspiration down the line.
In general, media internships yield the craziest results, both good and bad. Kathy O’Neill, the PR director of the Irish-American Heritage Center in Chicago, had an internship at New Jersey monthly magazine in the late 1980s. The magazine assigned her to interview eccentric millionaire car inventor.
“His phone number was in the book and I called him often,” O’Neill says. “He would always answer on the first ring and chat for a while before telling me he was too busy to talk. One day, my editor said to just go to his house. I didn’t have a car, so my sister took me and her infant children. When I arrived, I identified myself and he promptly turned his two Dobermans on me.”
On the one hand, O’Neill learned the important lesson of always calling ahead when you have an assignment to interview someone. But really, she learned the most important thing about a career in journalism. If you pursue it, you probably won’t make a lot of money. You probably won’t have a lot of prestige. And you will probably work long hours with minimal feedback. On the other hand, you will have crazy adventures and will be able to tell amazing stories for the rest of your life.
Meanwhile, also in New Jersey, Lauren Piscopo worked at a free newspaper on the Jersey Shore, where she received $100 a week to write the entire paper, which included such perks like free meals for restaurant reviews and concert and movie tickets. She also did some guerilla marketing gigs on the side, which included passing out tequila shots and dressing up like a bag of Smartfood.
“My second internship,” Piscopo says, “was at Atlantic City Magazine in 1989, where I should have investigated Donald Trump not paying construction workers who built the Taj Mahal casino, but alas, they sent me to interview Rip Taylor instead. It was the week Lucille Ball died, so he was a mess but soldiered on to open his ‘Rip Roarin’ performance, featuring washed-up showgirls fawning over Rip as he threw confetti. Somehow, that was entertainment.
After the opening, I asked him about his star turn on Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. He told me I was fun and said let’s get out of here and go to the bar. I was on his arm all night as he shoved canapés into his mouth and flirted with waiters. He signed his headshot, ‘Thank you for letting me be the first.’ He meant my first celeb interview. Then he took my hand and let me rip off his wig.”
Piscopo is now a marketing executive in the natural-foods industry in Boulder, Colorado, where “having hung out with Rip Taylor one time” is not a job requirement. But if you try to predict, three decades after the fact, where your internship will lead you professionally, you’ll almost certainly be wrong. Work life can be dreary, or it can be thrilling, but it can certainly be unpredictable. Internships will prepare you well for whatever craziness comes your way. And if you experience an internship like any of the above, the good news is that the craziness is only temporary.
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