A Dozen Lessons Later

View from my NYU dorm room freshman year of college.

View from my NYU dorm room freshman year of college.

I’m really getting sick of people complaining about the job market, how unpaid internships are unfair, and how the East Coast is far superior to the West Coast in terms of writing jobs.

Listen. It’s what you make of it. Don’t look for demand, be in demand. 

I’ve had 12 internships (See resume). Only one of them was paid, two of them offered a small stipend. And though my parents fronted the cost of my education and payments throughout my 3.5 years of undergrad, by my last semester of school, I was making enough off of freelance work to pay my own.

My writing gigs (knock on wood) were not obtained because I’m better or more talented than anyone else. No. Not in the least. It took 12 internships to get here.

I hate it when people tell me “how lucky” I am to have side writing gigs. Luck had nothing to do with it. I had three internships that started in 5 a.m. in the morning, I doubled up on internships twice, I got my “foot in the door” by applying to everything I could on Craigslist as a junior in high school. I remember dragging camera equipment through the snow in NYC all day just to shoot a package that didn’t air. I remember going to sleep at 8 p.m., going to work at 5 a.m., going to classes in the early morning, then going to another internship in the afternoon. The student newspaper gig was pretty brutal as well. Our shifts would often end at 3 a.m. in the morning.

I had no direction, no idea what I wanted to do, but I made sure I was at least doing something.

Yeah, being unpaid sucked but I learned that in order to establish personal value, you need to become valuable.  I would not pay myself for some of the pieces I wrote years ago.

To all my employers and mentors: THANK YOU. I’m grateful for all the opportunities that were given to me, even if sometimes that meant sitting in the back of the room just to observe what was going on.  I learned more from my internships than any course NYU gave me. Here’s the brutal truth. A lot of the internships I took were dead ends, but the few that weren’t ended up giving me fantastic bylines and connected me with the next step.

There seems to be this pervasive sense of entitlement going around. As if, if you front the 40k a year for tuition, get a couple of internships… then you’re entitled to a full-time job. As if your industry owes it to you to give you a foot in the door just because you took the necessary steps. At least in the writing realm, gigs and employers aren’t like colleges. There aren’t recruiters. Jobs aren’t college courses. No one has ever asked to see my degree. No one has ever asked for my G.P.A..

They want to know what I’ve done and what I can do for them. 

And I’ve learned to cut the B.S. and get straight to the point.

Yes I acknowledge the system favors those with financial support. [See: Who is a ‘journalist?’ Someone who can afford to be] There needs to be reform, but I chose to make the broken system work for me. [See my piece on: 3 ways to get around paying the $1000+ internship credit]

As for my current stage in life, there’s still so much more to learn. I’ve never been satisfied with my craft and that’s a good thing. I can always write better, I can always research more. I’m not there yet but I’m definitely am not going to stop taking amazing opportunities because it’s not worth my time.

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5 comments

  1. Francis Chen

    Hi, Clarissa,

    First of all, I would like to state that I’ve really enjoyed your writing pieces on Asian food culture.

    Secondly, while I recognize the fact that unpaid internships for some is the only way to get your foot in a competitive industry (I’ve done some in the past), I urge you to be careful with how you communicate your point across. I’ve gained a lot from my internships, but you’re making it feel like people aren’t working hard enough to apply for jobs. We are.

    Many of my closest friends would immediately switch industries and fields, if they realize that the majority of an industry was filled with unpaid internships. Many people have to juggle school, work, & social lives. College is already expensive for many, especially if they are living in very expensive cities, and have to shoulder lots of student debt. Some people do not have the luxury to do unpaid internships.

    The amount of time you spent working long hours UNPAID for your industry may work for you, but for others I know, they would choose alternative professions. It’s not the sort of lifestyle they choose to opt for, and you have to respect that.

    I’m not saying don’t work hard. Do work hard, but effectively. For some people, this means paying them a living wage. This has less with entitlement, but more of being able to get by and meet their basic needs (food/shelter).

  2. Jessica

    Hi Clarissa:
    I enjoy your blog a lot. I am Taiwanese American. I read your article almost every day, and I went to a couple of the restaurants that you commend on. Good writing, keep on going.