Sophomore animal science major Ellie Karasch is holding a baby house sparrow steady with her thumb and fingers while vet tech Jen Wolfe wraps its legs with clear tape, leaving a half-inch gap so the bird can balance and hop.
Wolfe is treating a condition called splay leg – the spread-eagled, immobilizing posture baby birds can acquire, often as a result of disease or faulty nest design, which makes them an easy target for predators if they’ve been blown to the ground. After the tape is removed in a few weeks, the legs should be back to normal and the bird can be released when it matures.
Nursing injured or abandoned juvenile birds, ducks, turtles, racoons, skunks, possums and other wildlife back to health, releasing them to the wild, and, in the process, educating the public about wildlife and conservation is the mission of the New England Wildlife Center in South Weymouth, Mass., where Karasch is interning this summer.
The 12-week internship is notable, says Karasch, who wants to be a veterinarian, because “it’s the most hand-on experience I’ve been able to do,” a major selling point on her eventual vet school applications.
The internship is notable in another respect. Even though the wildlife center is in the non-profit sector, where internships are typically unpaid, Karsach’s expenses – food, gas and housing – are being covered by a newly expanded and consolidated internship scholarship program at the University of Vermont.
The stipend she received from UVM as part of the program made the internship possible. “I don’t know what my summer would have been like without it,” Karasch says.
Study after study shows that internships are an invaluable career-building experience for college students, helping them earn starting salaries between 10 and 26 percent higher than students who haven’t interned. Interns are also significantly more likely to receive full-time job offers than non-interns and, once employed, are more satisfied with their jobs and are promoted more quickly than their non-intern counterparts.
But internships carry a built-in inequity.
“Internships are likely to be paid in business and STEM fields,” says Amanda Chase, UVM’s internship coordinator, who manages the internship scholarship program.
“Nonprofits, government and media internships tend to be unpaid,” she says, forcing some students interested in those fields – especially those from less affluent families – to take on a summer job rather than an internship, which will help pay the bills but not advance their careers. Chase has led an effort rallying and coordinating support across the university to aid students in unpaid internships.
“Our goal is to remove, for as many students as possible, any financial burden that unpaid internships can represent,” says UVM provost David Rosowsky, who has advocated for the program and is working with the UVM Foundation to secure additional funding to build on the pool of more than $300,000 currently available.
As UVM is expanding its commitment to scholarships that support unpaid internships, it is also enhancing its efforts to place students in paid internships. About 65 percent of UVM internships are paid, according to Chase, which corresponds to national figures, and the university has recently helped students secure internships with Google, Fidelity Investments, Amazon, Microsoft, Pfizer, Under Armour, and Morgan Stanley, among other employers – which more often than not turn into job offers after graduation.
From internship to law school
It’s hard to imagine a bigger fan of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources' Perennial Internship program than Nicole Pidala, a Natural Resources major and member of UVM’s Honors College who graduated in 2017.
The scholarship program – whose costs are split between the Rubenstein School and employers – supported a summer internship Pidala secured as a public communications assistant at Green Mountain Power’s 21-turbine wind farm along a ridge line in Lowell, Vt. The internship, in turn, helped her land a job as an operations assistant at SunCommon, Vermont’s largest installer of residential solar panels.
Pidala then marshalled both her internship and job experiences into a standout law school application to University of Virginia, where she will start in the fall, specializing in renewable energy law.
As crucial as the Green Mountain Power internship turned out to be for her trajectory, it wouldn’t have happened without UVM’s support. “I would not have been able to apply for it if it wasn’t paid,” she says.
Sophomore political science major Daniel Felde benefited himself from a scholarship that supported his unpaid internship – working in Washington, D.C. for Nevada congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada – and in the process learned why internship scholarship programs like UVM’s are needed.
“Most people working on Capitol Hill as staff assistants had an internship with a senator or representative at one point,” he says. Internship programs like UVM’s help ensure that interns – and eventually congressional staffers – come from economically diverse backgrounds. “Ultimately we need those types of people in government to provide that perspective,” he says.
Chase agrees. “When you think about it, if a whole set of industries tend to have internships that are unpaid,” she says, “and you have students who have to choose between a paid part-time job and an unpaid internship, that’s not a choice they should have to make. This program helps make these internships a more viable option for students of all income levels, which benefits both students and employers.”