All last year, I grappled with whether or not I should apply to DukeEngage. I knew that if I participated in any of the programs, I wouldn’t be able to provide a paycheck to my family as I typically had during my summers. While in years past, giving up two months’ worth of pay was not an option for me, my parents’ slight move up the economic ladder had made DukeEngage a viable, albeit risky, possibility for my summer.
I finally decided to apply to DukeEngage Miami by telling myself that while, yes, I would struggle financially to make it through the year, the experience would ultimately pay off in the long run.
Cut to my second week in Miami. While at work one afternoon, I leaned across the table to grab a stack of papers and accidentally hit my water bottle with my elbow. The bottle fell and spilled its contents all over my computer. It didn’t take more than ten seconds for Lindsay and me to clean up the water, but the damage was done. My computer was dead.
A simple mistake on my part resulted in $750 worth of damage. For some, such a cost may be only an inconvenience, but for me it was it was the nightmare I had dreaded. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to fix my computer and now, neither could I, because I had no income.
In that moment, I wished I had never done DukeEngage. “Why?” I asked myself, “Why did I think I could do this?” I was mad that I had chosen to sacrifice my own financial stability for what, in the immediate reality of my life, was nothing more than a superfluous opportunity.
For many students of lower socioeconomic status, unpaid internships and programs, like the ones offered through DukeEngage, are a risky and unfeasible economic option. Nonetheless, these students have to grapple with the very real reality that they may not gain entrance into professional fields post-graduation without taking such jobs that jeopardize their financial security.
In a study conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace,employers who hire recent college graduates indicated that they place more weight on experiences gained from internships than on a student’s GPA, Major, or University. In fact, internships were named the “single most important credential” for the hiring process on post-graduation resumes, among all industries surveyed.
It’s a well-known fact that internships are crucial for students to pave their way into higher level careers, yet acquiring such credentials is a feat only achievable by those who already possess a certain amount of economic privilege. This privilege allows some to prioritize an experience over a paycheck and ultimately is rewarded with greater economic prosperity. Because industries value such experiences on resumes, students of lower socioeconomic status can be excluded from obtaining opportunities for economic mobility which further reinforces and widens the already prevalent socioeconomic divisions in our society.
DukeEngage perpetuates this classist system by not providing adequate monetary compensation to its participants. While they allot students a Summer Earning Fee of $3,000, this money is immediately placed toward each student’s tuition and cannot be used otherwise. Such compensation is insufficient for many students who rely on having an income during the summer to support themselves and possibly their families. Furthermore, DukeEngage prohibits its participants from obtaining outside funding while they partake in their program, ultimately barring lower socioeconomic students from yet another opportunity to gain essential internship experience.
While the professional industry needs to change its prioritization of unpaid internships for this privilege-based system to collapse, DukeEngage can remedy the class-based discrimination it impels by regularly compensating students monetarily during their eight-weeks. This could come in the form of a bi-weekly disbursements of the Summer Earning Fee, or DukeEngage could tailor compensation to fit the financial needs of each student based on their economic status.
So long as DukeEngage remains inaccessible to students of all backgrounds, it aids in creating barriers for underprivileged students at Duke and further exacerbates class divisions in society at large. If Duke and DukeEngage support equal opportunity, then they can no longer support such a system that strengthens and creates divisions across socioeconomic lines.
As I sit here, writing my last blog post during my final week, it saddens me to say that I regret participating in DukeEngage. Despite the fact that I’ve made lifelong friendships with people I love and have partaken in work that I’m wholly passionate about, I cannot ignore the enormous financial burden this program has put on my back and the threat it poses to my future stability. I hope that DukeEngage will take the steps necessary to make their programs inclusive to students of all backgrounds and circumstances so that no one has to choose between engaging in enriching experiences with incredible people and maintaining their financial security.
While I loved my experience in Miami, it will forever be defined by a single mistake.