Opinion | The Canon

Interning in the coffee trenches

The quality of internships varies dramatically, has little correlation with the reputability of the given outfit, and depends a great deal on luck. However, there are certainly times when a student, privileged as he or she is to have New York City for a backyard, can manage to land the “ideal” internship—one that is challenging, edifying, rewarding, energizing, and maybe even remunerating. Internships that tick these boxes are so far removed from the average internship experience that they might be categorized with a different name altogether. I’d venture that the ideal internship really looks more like an apprenticeship, with some meaningful transfer of skills and a close relationship between the master practitioner and the protégé. 

Obviously, students aren’t coming to Columbia to work long hours over an anvil or to operate printing presses. Most Columbia students are seeking the types of work experience that are intangible and esoteric. Everyone can understand what a blacksmith does and see the product of his labor. His is of an “honest” craft. Few people know what Blackrock does, and how their interns contribute to the black magic of asset management. This isn’t to say that it is impossible for firms in typical New York industries—such as finance, corporate services, media, and the public sector—to offer meaningful internships, given the specialized and corporatized nature of their operations. But, it might be harder for these firms to translate the essence of their work into a cohesive attempt to teach something useful to the intern in a fair exchange. The common fallback is to make the intern go fetch coffee, a terrifying fallback in a city that runs on coffee.

How many interns in this city are languishing away two days a week, desperately trying not to scald their hands, cursing the sachems of “Starbucks”—as they fetch yet another half-caff doppio macchiato with “foam to the top” for their emotionally stunted yuppie boss who deals with stress by borrowing from the choice phrases of People Magazine to lampoon the eating habits of coworkers in short spurts of catty sass? Do we blame this person for wasting the time and energies of her well-meaning intern? Or is it that this monster was herself born in the throes of her own failed internship a decade ago? 

More broadly, is New York a wasteland where internships are the trenches, with bright-eyed students shipped off and plopped into the miasmic battlefield of “real life,” with clouds of profound disappointment choking dreams as effectively as mustard gas? Is the intern just trying to avoid disillusionment—the trench foot of quotidian life? Some students prevail in this wasteland. They are the lucky ones for whom the advantages will manifest. But we don’t come to Columbia in order to risk our time in the wasteland. Something about this university—its demanding schoolwork, its relative isolation in the Upper West Side, its awful career services website—seems tailor-made to protect students from falling into harmful internships. At Columbia, the internship takes an alternate meaning. It is the harbinger of life after college and all its attendant pressures. And because we live in New York City, and not in some bucolic New England Eden, the “real world” threatens to incur on our academic paradise all the more frequently. 

An internship is a Faustian pact. These pacts expose the ruse that real life can be staved off. Certainly many students make the deal, hoping to carve out a path to success. But what happens when that path has nothing intrinsically valuable about it? When being an intern is only advantageous when a brand name can be affixed to the CV? Just because coffee duty might be worth it to slap the imprimatur of major outfit on your record, and just because the terms of the Faustian deal might improve a tiny bit in the next round of negotiations, doesn’t mean the underlying logic is healthy. Of course, sometimes we have to do things we don’t love to make better things happen down the line for ourselves and our loved ones. But internships are a luxury, rarely tied to such considerations. 

Internships, mostly unpaid and unfulfilling as they are, are dangerous because they make us believe that it is sweet and proper to construct selfish personal expectations. They make us accept doing things we don’t love for years at a time—perversely relishing the experience in a masochistic, predeterminist way—as though in exchange for years spent “in the trenches,” a higher power will bestow upon us that six-figure salary in the promised land of senior management. Rather, we ought only accept the apprenticeship-type arrangement and seek satisfaction and edification in the present. After all, you don’t want to find yourself stuck in the mud, profoundly alone and miserable—with only a distant, unfounded hope that it will all be worth it one day. Most likely, it won’t be. At that point, you would do well to go “over the top” and seek a new occupation, even if it means some time wandering in no man’s land. 

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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