Internships have been around for longer than I can remember. While it has been called different names over the years, the premise has generally remained the same: It is the position of a student or trainee who works in an organization, sometimes without pay, in order to gain work experience or satisfy requirements for a qualification. In 2004 when I graduated college, the biggest question asked of graduating seniors wasn’t where they were working, but rather where they had secured an internship. Back then, just 15 years ago, very few if any companies paid for interns. You were free labor in exchange for knowledge. You were looked at as the grunt, the nobody, the coffee runner, the copy maker, and maybe if you were lucky, you met someone who would later become your mentor. Even more rare, you were asked to stay on past the internship period and offered an entry-level, barely-able-to-make-ends-meet job, and you were thrilled about it! At 21, right out of college, looking at a mere $20,000 in debt, I understood the work progression. There were parts of it that I didn’t love, but I got it.
Over the years, the idea of the internship, at least in regards to money, has changed. Graduate assistantships are offered to students getting their master’s degrees to help pay for tuition and some expenses. Companies are offering paid internships (also sometimes called externships), in addition to school credit, and some schools are working with industry professionals to offer their students a small stipend for their work as an intern if they do not offer an hourly wage.
But what happens when school is over and you’re now out in the scary place called the real world? How many people have to take lower paying jobs or even a no-pay job just to gain more experience? And what happens if you decide to change your career later on in life, sometimes many years after college, and you have to start at the proverbial bottom all over again? How many people can afford those low-paying jobs? And even further, how many companies will actually hire you for an internship or entry-level job? I’m here to tell you from experience, probably none. So what do you do? You take the knowledge that you do have and freelance.
I think the word freelance is thrown around so often, the definition has become skewed. It is often used interchangeably with self-employed, and while freelancers can be considered self-employed, not all who are self-employed are freelancers. There’s a beauty and a curse in the world of freelancing, and the unpredictability of it all isn’t for everyone. Yes, you are able to travel and work for a myriad of outlets at once. On the flip side, your pay can be lower than that of a full-time employee, with no benefits, no security, and sometimes the lag time for payment of services can feel like forever.
When I changed my career about five years ago, I was in the dark. I had applied for dozens of internships, without so much as a single interview as a result. I sent e-mails to newspaper editors and photography managers explaining who I was, always with a resume attached, and received nothing in return. I had no one to call for a favor and wondered if I had made a huge mistake. On a whim, I sent a Facebook message to a friend of mine who I thought had a connection to a football team. Turns out he was just a ‘superfan,’ but it was just what I needed to get my foot in the door. He connected me with a friend of his who worked on a college draft guide, and I jumped at the opportunity.
For the next few years, I traveled all across the country photographing college football games, attending media days for local conferences, watched as both Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray hoisted up the Heisman, and more. I loved every minute of it. I truly loved the people with whom I was working. They are my family. I traveled to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl, fought elbows in the crowds of reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine, and froze on a December afternoon in Philly as the Army Black Knights sang second for the third year in a row against the Navy Midshipmen. In just three short years, I had a stack of media credentials that would make anyone on the outside envious. I was proud of my work and my portfolio was growing by the week. I was averaging at times 30,000 views a month of my photos (to a relative unknown like myself that’s a big deal), and I was making connections everywhere I went.
What people didn’t know was that I never got paid; not a single dollar. Thousands of dollars over those years came out of my pocket on credit cards to basically intern for myself. I was broke. I had to ask my parents for financial help. If you know me, everything about having to do that made me cringe. Eventually something inside me broke as well, but I refused to quit!
In that time I had also started to take photos for my local college’s football and basketball teams. Again, it started after I introduced myself to the head football coach at their conference media day and asked if he would be okay with me attending practice every once in a while. He didn’t hesitate to say yes. I created relationships with players, administrators, coaches, and even parents, and felt like I finally found my place. I was an alumna of the school and it had always felt like home. After two years of volunteering my time, I had written a proposal for the athletic department to create a contract position for me. I had a vision of what I wanted to produce for the department, focusing on the two sports I knew so well and everyone seemed excited.
So, what was the problem? The athletic director didn’t understand why I needed to be paid for my services. “She can’t do it for free?” If you want to insult someone, ask them to work for free when they’ve clearly paid their dues. It’s not only insulting, it’s downright disrespectful. Let me be clear. This by no means is a way to throw shade at that particular AD, who I happen to respect very much. But it is a conversation that needs to be had, and it needs to be loud enough so everyone can hear it.
The scary thing I happen to notice about those who freelance, or those who are still making their way in a particular industry, is that they are afraid to ask for what they rightly deserve for fear of being asked not to return, having to accept the fact that they either cannot be paid or will be paid very very little, or will be made to seem ungrateful for the opportunity. This is crap. Colleges are quick to say that they have no money, but my question is this, “Is the request of a freelancer not worth the menial investment in your school? And to those who hire freelancers with the intent of little to no pay, how would you feel if someone told you that they weren’t paying you for your knowledge and skill, and you should simply be appreciative?” You would probably throw up a middle finger or two and walk away.
Freelancers need to learn to do the same. We need to know our worth and understand that there are people out there who are respectful of your time and want your talent. You do not have to accept free work simply because it’s work. I can’t tell you when that point is. You have to feel it and know yourself and what you can offer. I don’t know your talent. But I can promise you that no one is going to work harder than someone who is hungry. And it has been my experience that no one is hungrier than someone who is fighting for every penny they deserve that they are not getting.