Ellis: Nonprofit, Not Possible

Low-income students face challenges in securing off-term opportunities.

by Simon Ellis | 1/4/19 2:15am

The emails seem to roll in on almost a daily basis, offering thousands of dollars to students looking to pursue “design your own” internship programs with Dartmouth organizations. Deans, professors and fellow students encouraged me to apply for programs with Rauner Library, the Center for Social Impact, the Dickey Center, the Rockefeller Center or even individual departments to secure funding for my upcoming off-term, which I had filled with an internship at a nonprofit law office in New York. Both the candor with which they spoke and the seemingly overwhelming number of resources available made me feel confident when applying for funding that was critical to me being able to take up my offer in Albany. However, not only was I declined funding during the initial application round, I discovered that many of my friends who depend on these funding sources had also been dismissed — highlighting a pernicious consequence of pursing nonprofit internships. 

Students who come from traditionally low-income communities often lack the means to support themselves in nonprofit professional internships. The competitiveness for funding and overall lack of opportunities further complicate low-income students’ abilities to remain competitive career wise. Dartmouth’s unique quarter system is often lauded for allowing students the opportunity to pursue internships not traditionally available to other college students, but the D-Plan can also add immense pressure on students to find a professional internship during their off-terms. A 2017 survey conducted by the Center for Professional Development noted that 92 percent of Dartmouth’s Class of 2017 had at least one off-term internship during their time as an undergraduate, highlighting the expectation that students find these internships and participate in them as often as possible. Students must not only find an internship and make it through the competitive and stressful interview process, they then also have to plan how to financially support themselves during the internship.

This is where the gap for low-income students becomes most visible, even for paid internships. Many professional internship programs require students to move to large cities where the cost of living may be exorbitant compared to at home. Even if the company provides some sort of “housing allowance,” these usually aren’t issued until the first paycheck and even at the end of the internship. Providing a down payment for an apartment, coming up with a full wardrobe of professional clothing and even daily travel can all become roadblocks to the success of low-income students, even in paid opportunities. 

However, this barely scratches the surface of the issues behind nonprofit internships and internships in which students are not compensated for their work. Not only must they secure internship offers, they then must figure out how they will pay for living expenses and other costly financial burdens associated with working a full-time internship with no pay. Without meaningful and accessible funding sources, income immediately creates an often insurmountable barrier for students wishing to pursue nonprofit opportunities.

With the number of hurdles in front of low-income students and Dartmouth’s failure to provide sufficient and accessible financial support during off-terms, nonprofit internships become unattainable for many students, and only serve to further exacerbate financial inequality. To future employers, when reading a student’s resume, please don’t consider a lack of volunteer hours or nonprofit experience as an unwillingness to do so, but rather the possibility of a financial inability to do so.