THE ONLY BLACK GUY IN THE OFFICE

What the Unpaid Internship Debate Overlooks — From a Former Unpaid Intern

Yes, they’re basically indentured servitude, but that doesn’t mean we should shame students who pursue them

The Only Black Guy In the Office
LEVEL
Published in
4 min readMar 8, 2021

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Illustration: Michael Kennedy for LEVEL

Update 6/7/22: Level has a new home. You can read this article and other new articles by visiting LEVELMAN.com.

The summer before my senior year in college, I landed an internship in New York City at a company where I’d always wanted to work. I still remember that experience like it was yesterday: subway rides to the office, chopping it up with people whose LinkedIn accounts I’d stalked as a junior, soaking up all the game I could. I was living the dream — aside from the fact that my only compensation was fist bumps and the occasional extra scone from a Starbucks run.

These memories came to mind recently last week after a perennial Twitter topic trended once again: unpaid internships. As always, it spiraled into a heated debate with no middle ground. Some declared unequivocally that all companies should pay interns; others advocated for the nobility of unpaid internships, since the tradition had been pivotal in their own professional journeys. While I’d never glorify students paying dues at their own expense, I couldn’t completely cosign either side of the argument.

Hear me out.

Do interns deserve to get paid? You bet your ass they do. During my intern days, I could only make ends meet by moonlighting as a waiter on nights and weekends, often changing into my flair-laden uniform before leaving the office. It’s hard enough getting noticed among a small group of hungry novices; try bringing your A game every day while basically working two jobs and finding your way in a new city. The irony of the unpaid internship is that it’s actually a paid internship, just with interns footing the bill.

While these unpaid opportunities can be effective ways of getting a foot in the door, they also tend to disenfranchise those who aren’t able to afford a few months of subletting, transportation, food, and other…

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The Only Black Guy In the Office
LEVEL
Writer for

Do you know him? Is it you? The trials and tribulations of a Black man navigating corporate life.