Quoting Alix Land from For free or not for free?

Some consider unpaid internships as similar to free pitching or spec work, but if you get the right opportunity, the advantages are yours, not those of the employer.

The benefits can be up there with those of pro bono design. But the thing is you need to be in the right internship, not one where you're treated as a servant, fetching coffee all day.

Here's a short story about how I gained experience through an unpaid internship.

Sewickley bridgeSewickley bridge, Pennsylvania, via Bridgepix.com.

It was around Christmas in 2000, and I was on the third and penultimate year of my bachelor of arts. The head of the course made an announcement about a £1,000 travel bursary that was up for grabs, with the money to be used in the summer of 2001, during the break between the course's third and fourth years. Only one person could win.

The applicant needed to show that he/she would be heading overseas for three months in order to gain experience in the design profession. So I stayed back at the library each night, emailing design studios and agencies in the United States, applying for any relevant internship I could find.

I must've contacted 100 different companies, and I was offered three internships, one in Santa Monica, one in New York, and one in Sewickley (10 miles outside Pittsburgh). Each offer was conditional upon me arranging my work visa, and although it seemed the least glamourous, I chose Sewickley due to the company I'd be with — the non-profit Graphic Arts Technical Foundation or GATF (now consolidated with the Printing Industries of America). So I told my contact I'd be happy to join the 80 or so staff at the GATF headquarters, dependant on winning the travel bursary.

GATF logo

All my various approach emails were printed and included with my bursary application. The effort paid off and I won.

That £1K made my trip possible, but only just covered what CIEE charged me (CIEE is a company that helps students with overseas experiences) for the working visa and flights package (return flights from London to NYC, one night's accommodation in a New York hostel, working visa for three months).

So as well as the planned internship from nine to five, Monday to Friday, I knew I'd need a second job, taking all the hours available. The GATF gig was completely unpaid.

When June 2001 came, everything was arranged — visa, flights, internship, and a rented apartment in Sewickley. I remember the nerves as I waited at Belfast airport where I'd catch a connection to London.

New York for the first time was something I'll never forget, and standing on top of one of the Trade Towers, looking down over Manhattan took my breath away.

twin towers from belowTwin Towers, New York, via Thinkstock.

I bought a Greyhound ticket to Pittsburgh, with my Sewickley apartment address at the ready.

It was good fortune that my apartment was just across the Ohio River Boulevard from the Sewickley Country Inn. The manager gave me a job as a waiter, and I clocked-in on a few weeknights as well as two 12-hour shifts at the weekend.

My role at GATF was to spend time learning from each of the departments. Pre-press, press, post-press, marketing, subscriptions, research, and a few others. I was also able to choose and take part in three of the 20 or so workshops the organisation ran, with each workshop lasting from two to five days, costing a few thousand dollars, and attracting industry professionals from across the country. This was an important factor in my choice of Sewickley. I don't think I'd have learned anywhere near as much had I gone somewhere else.

Throughout the internship, at around 07:30 each morning, I was picked-up outside my apartment by GATF employee Rob Semsey. He'd been given the dubious task of "looking after" me. Great guy. Really went out of his way (literally) to help, adding an extra 30-45 minutes onto his daily commute from the other side of Pittsburgh. Sara Hantz drove me back in the evenings. It was on her route home. One day after work I tried cycling to the apartment on a borrowed bicycle, but I got a bit lost in the Sewickley hills and the 45-minute journey turned into two hours.

There was a suggestion of me becoming employed at the company, but I thought finishing my degree was more of a priority. I said my goodbyes and returned to New York for a few days before catching a September 17th inbound to London. An indescribable time to have been back in Manhattan.

Long story short, and in the same situation, would I take the opportunity again?

Absolutely.

GATF didn't see me as someone to profit from or someone to do the menial tasks that others didn't want to. I used the company's time and resources to improve my knowledge.

What do you think? Unpaid internships: yes or no?

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Update:
Two years on, here are a few more thoughts on unpaid internships.