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I Was Charged $6,000 to Be an Intern

A student's university expected her to pay thousands of dollars to work a summer internship at a separate institution in a different city.

by Kristin Hugo; as told to Leila Ettachfini
20 February 2020, 8:33pm

Collage by Hunter French | Image via Shutterstock

Do you have a bill that you’ll never stop thinking about? Tell us about it .

THE PERSON: Kristin Hugo

AGE AT THE TIME: 26

PROFESSION: Science journalist

THE BILL: $5,928

THE RUB: Kristin, along with other students in her master's program, was expected to pay her university thousands of dollars to work a summer internship at a separate institution in a different city.

Five years ago, I applied to a one-year science journalism master’s program at Boston University. At the time, it was about $66,000 a year, so $33,000 a semester. But on the science journalism website, it said that the program was two semesters and a summer. When I emailed to ask about the cost of the summer program (which was nowhere to be found on their website), they said it was around $5,600, and that it didn’t qualify for loans.

Fine. However, I was shocked to learn that the summer portion did not consist of courses through BU. It actually just meant getting an internship—any relevant internship—for school credit.

Essentially, I’d be required to pay BU for my own labor at an unaffiliated internship if I wanted to fulfill the requirements of the master’s program.

If this was a fee that was likely to derail other students, I figured someone would have brought it up. But after going to BU’s accepted students visiting day, emailing the advisers, talking to graduates of the program, and reading everything I could find on the internet about it, no one did. So I decided to continue on with the program. Plus, I had taken out the maximum amount I could in loans, which on top of tuition provides money for housing, food, etc. I thought I might be able to use the extra [money] for the internship since I had found an extremely cheap room at $567 per month. BU did not provide housing or money for housing during the internship programs.

So I do the program, and about three quarters of the way through they told us the cost to intern for credit was actually $5,928, [or $328 more than they originally said]. At that point, it became clear that the majority of the people in the program had not actually asked about the cost of the summer internship. So people were like, Wait, I have to pay? And how much? They say you're paying for the units.

Though I knew I’d have to pay for an internship going in, a few things changed for me toward the end of the year—the main one being the state of my bank account. I simply didn't have enough [money]. So I told the program’s administrators that I couldn’t afford it.

I wasn’t bluffing. It was true that I wouldn't be able to afford the internship at the price they asked for, but I also had a strong suspicion that they would offer me a price cut if I pushed. It was a calculated risk. I knew from talking to other students that BU is always playing chicken with tuition.

I turned out to be right. Miraculously, after I asked about deferment, they came back with "Oh! you qualify for a merit-based scholarship." It was the Harold B. Buchbinder Scholarship for $3,000. I also had $1,000 left over from a scholarship for tuition that they allowed to go towards the internship. In the end, I ended up paying BU $1,928 so that they would count my internship towards the program and I’d be able to graduate.

Before I figured that out though, BU had a suggestion for me and other students worried about the cost. Since the internship didn’t qualify for loans, we could sign up for summer classes at BU, apply for a loan to cover that, and use any extra towards the internship. I actually considered this, but the paid internship I landed at National Geographic was based in Washington D.C., so I would have no choice but to fail any classes.

Now, every single time I know someone who wants to go to grad school or any private school, but especially private grad school, I tell them not to even think about paying sticker price. They just tell you that because they want to see if you're a sucker. It has nothing to do with whether or not you can afford it. Also, talk to your fellow students. It's kinda like unionizing. Ask them, Hey, did everyone get a scholarship except me? What did you do to get it? Then do that too.

At BU, I often felt like, You guys are always trying to reach into my back pocket, what is the deal? For a while I thought it was kind of sinister, but the school is technically a non-profit institution. Still, the year I was there the president made $2.48 million. It was like, C'mon, I'm eating out of trash here!

To me, the weirdest part about this whole thing is that schools charging students to intern is actually kind of common. It's wonderful that people are starting to pay attention to the exploitation of interns as free labor, but it seems that few people have issues with universities charging people to do them.

(When reached by VICE, BU did not provide comment on Hugo's story.)

This post has been edited for clarity.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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