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Earning my own way: A college kid’s ‘internship-less’ summer

Leda Olia finds her summers as a camp counselor help her all year.

Leda Olia finds her summers as a camp counselor help her all year.

As the school year comes to a close in Newton, preteens flock to Cabot’s Ice Cream for their first taste of summer freedom, while high school and college students catch the Red Line to Cambridge, and the Green Line to Longwood to begin their internships at university labs and medical offices.

No summer internship? Well, apparently, that’s a problem.

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I thought that once I survived the grueling college admissions process, the competition for achievement among my peers (and their parents) would subside. But no sooner had I received my first semester grades than had a frenzy broken out among us over finding the perfect internship.

It’s as if students and parents will do whatever it takes to gain the upper hand — and many seem to think that these unpaid summer internships will do the trick.

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For the past five summers, I’ve worked as a camp counselor at the Chestnut Hill School, spending 40 hours each week with preschool-age children, and earning my own money in the process. Money that has not only contributed to my college tuition, but has also funded some of my most memorable experiences to date — an impromptu visit to an aquarium, several “I need something to wear tonight” shopping trips, and countless nights out that ended with a slice of greasy pizza.

My job doesn’t come with a fancy title that elicits “oohs” and “ahhs” from my peers. It isn’t glamorous. Most of my days consist of spraying hypoallergenic sunscreen on squirmy 5-year-olds and pouring apple juice into Dixie cups. But when the school year rolls around, and I want money to take a weekend trip with my girlfriends, I won’t have to beg my parents.

Throughout my first year at university, I’ve had to learn how to manage my money the hard way: by not having enough. A routine grocery store run turned into every college kid’s nightmare when my debit card was declined. Luckily, I had just enough change (which was meant for laundry day) and was able to scurry out of the store before I could embarrass myself further.

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I was completely alone — with no parent by my side to make up the difference. That was the first time that I understood that I needed to be more careful. And because what was on that debit card (or, really, what was not on that debit card) was actually my own hard-earned cash, I had to be accountable for my financial situation.

And finding a solution wasn’t fun. I learned to avoid sneaky bank fees, ordered tap water at restaurants, and made my body wash do double-duty as dish soap.

As I transition out of my teenage years, I’ve come to realize that the financial burdens of adulthood seem to be pushed further away as my friends and I rely on our parents for pocket money — when we should be figuring it out on our own.

Not only does the trend of unpaid internships strip young adults of financial responsibility, it also reinforces the advantages of well-off families. I don’t have the privilege of being able to spend a summer without earning money. Instagram-worthy service trips to teach English in South America or study wildlife in Africa, as life-changing as they may be, are out of the question for me.

I’m not attempting to write off unpaid internships totally. In fact, several of my friends have raved about the people they have met and the real-life experience they’ve gained. Still, I believe there is something wrong with the system. High-powered companies and universities with endowments larger than the GDPs of some small countries should not be taking advantage of students and their families.

But until these institutions learn that this form of free labor is unethical, parents should realize that there is no shame in having their high-achieving child bus tables or lifeguard at the local pool to make a few extra bucks. Sure, they may not be helping doctors who cure cancer by filing their papers or maintaining the Twitter account of a Boston PR giant, but they will be learning the life-long lesson of personal financial responsibility.

And there’s plenty of time to be holed up in a lab during the school year, anyway.

Leda Olia is a Newton resident and a second-year student at the University of Edinburgh.
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