By Robbie Gramer, Anna Weber
There was a point in the spring of 2016 when Carlos Mark Vera reached his limit. Like thousands of other students in Washington, Vera was juggling a grueling schedule of college classes, a part-time job, and an internship—all to set himself up for a career in public service after he graduated.
His resume was impressive: an internship on Capitol Hill, one in the European Parliament, a glide path to graduating with a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree, and most recently, a coveted internship at the White House. There was just one problem: All of his internships were unpaid. Unlike some of his classmates, Vera didn’t have family money, but he wouldn’t be positioned to get a job after graduation without those internships.
So the work kept piling up, internship duties on top of classes on top of a part-time on-campus job he had to take to pay for food and rent. He was also in the U.S. Army Reserves. Fifty-hour weeks turned into 70- or 80-hour weeks. “I was just going, running back and forth and basically fighting to not fall asleep,” he said. “At one point, I just kind of crashed. I just totally burnt out.” When he reached his breaking point, Vera made the decision to drop out of school.
It’s an open secret that Washington’s foreign-policy machine effectively runs on interns. These interns, most unpaid or underpaid, have toiled away in the shadows, knowing their careers in foreign policy—whether in government or otherwise—won’t happen without those precious lines on their resumes.
“Everyone pretty much knows that Washington wouldn’t work the way that it does without unpaid interns,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “Most of the people that we work with today have gotten to where they are in large part because they had been able to accept internships that weren’t paid.”
Foreign Policy interviewed more than two dozen current and former interns across government agencies, think tanks, nonprofit organizations, and other industries that work on foreign policy. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity, worried that criticizing their current or former employers could undercut prospects for their first job.
Some of the interns who spoke to Foreign Policy received pay for their work, but many did not. Many, but not all, felt their internships were important for building their resumes and gaining experience to get a full-time job. Nearly all said they felt it was unfair they received no pay or only limited stipends for their labor. Some had to give up on careers in public service or foreign policy simply because they couldn’t afford to step into the unpaid internship circuit. Many others who are still pursuing careers in foreign policy said they know classmates who gave up on the field altogether too.
Still, how would Washington function without unpaid interns? In Congress, they man the front desks and telephone lines, manage correspondence with constituents, and help conduct legislation research. At the U.S. State and Defense Departments, they assist on policy papers, write social media posts, and carry out dull (but necessary) administrative work. At humanitarian aid groups and other nonprofits, which often have small staffs, they work on everything from managing the organization’s website to granting proposals to donor communications. At think tanks, they organize events, help run programs, or, as three separate think tank interns relayed to Foreign Policy, even ghostwrite reports that senior fellows later put their names on without giving the interns due credit. In many—but not all—cases, the interns are unpaid or underpaid.
For decades, the unpaid internship system meant the government, think tanks, and other organizations could incorporate a pool of free labor into their business model without feeling responsible for doling out any pay or benefits. The practice has a cost though, even beyond the toll unpaid internships took on Vera and countless other students.
Unpaid or underpaid internships serve as a massive barrier for low-income students, particularly those from minority communities, to enter careers in foreign policy or national security. Many federal agencies, particularly the U.S. State Department, have long struggled with dismal diversity and inclusion records, and it starts at the bottom rung of the career ladder.
Things are starting to change, but progress is not uniform. Some of the leading Washington think tanks that relied on unpaid internship programs for years have begun paying interns. The Center for a New American Security was one of the first to start doing so. Others have not followed suit, however. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, for example, advertises on its website that it has at least 80 to 90 interns on its staff at any given time, and most are unpaid. The International Crisis Group, International Rescue Committee, the Stimson Center, and other prominent think tanks and nonprofits also have unpaid internship programs.
Other think tanks and nonprofits pay small stipends instead, which the interns who spoke with Foreign Policy said still aren’t enough to address financial needs for low-income students. The Middle East Institute, for example, advertises that in addition to other networking and learning benefits, it pays its interns “up to $500/month” based on their hours per week—which would amount to $3.13 an hour for a full-time, 40-hour per week internship or around $6.25 an hour for a part-time internship. The minimum wage in Washington is $15.20 per hour.
A living wage calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that for a single adult in the Washington, D.C. area, $19.97 per hour is constituted as a living wage and $6.13 per hour is considered a poverty wage.
Congress has allocated funding for Capitol Hill internship programs, but it varies from office to office if, or by how much, interns are paid. As of 2019, the maximum Capitol Hill offices could pay interns was $1,800 per month per intern, but only 1 of the 5 current or recent former Capitol Hill interns that Foreign Policy interviewed was paid this rate. One former Hill intern received no pay, outside of a small reimbursement for public transit costs. Some federal agencies offered paid internship programs, but many others—including the State Department, Justice Department, Office of Personnel Management, and U.S. International Development Finance Corporation—still rely primarily or partially on unpaid interns.
As Washington’s national security apparatus goes through a reckoning on diversity and inclusion, more current and former interns are starting to speak out on the system’s most glaring problem: Getting a job in government often requires unpaid internships, many of which are in Washington, one of the most expensive cities in the country. This shuts out most of the next generation of potential national security experts at the outset. So why, everyone seems to be asking agencies and organizations in the foreign-policy field, can’t you just pay your interns?
Over the summer, Hannah Terry, a senior at Centre College in Kentucky, landed an internship opportunity at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda. Because U.S. State Department internships—including at embassies abroad—are unpaid, embassy interns often have to fund their own travel and lives abroad during their internship. Thanks to the pandemic, Terry’s internship was remote, which saved her costly travel. But even a remote State Department internship ended up being a financial burden. She had previously interned at small nonprofits working on shoe-string budgets that still cobbled together money to compensate their interns. The State Department, which has an annual budget of almost $60 billion per year, doesn’t.
“Without my school funding, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it,” Terry said. “It was definitely frustrating seeing that I was able to intern for nonprofits who were able to pay me, and the U.S. government wouldn’t. I want to be a public servant. I want to serve in these government spaces, but if they won’t pay me, I can’t do it.”
State Department officials have voiced similar frustration with their agency, and several U.S. diplomats who oversaw interns said they felt powerless that they couldn’t provide compensation or financial support. Their frustrations about the State Department are emblematic of the broader problem with workforce issues in the foreign-policy world.
The State Department has tried, and failed, to increase the United States’ diplomatic corps’ diversity in recent decades, mostly with underwhelming results. Its internship program and the coveted security clearance that comes with it is a case in point, barring many lower-income students from a foot in the door.
Many interns at the State Department come from wealthier families who can bankroll their children’s unpaid internships. “I don’t know anyone who’s worked for the State Department as interns without being supported by their parents,” said one midlevel State Department official.
There are other issues. Many State Department officials and interns voiced frustration that the programs aren’t managed well.
“Having unpaid interns is almost a symptom of how State treats its interns,” said one recent former State Department intern, who said she received no real oversight or direction from her supervisor and rarely received assignments during the course of her internship. As a result, she decided to change career paths entirely.
As a second midlevel State Department official put it: “A lot of [the interns] that I’ve talked to have loved the experience of being at State but are frustrated by lack of guidance, less information about what they’ll be doing before they arrive, not a lot of mentorship while they’re on the job, sometimes issues with not having enough work to do or getting the shit work no one else wants to do, and general frustration about lack of information about how they can continue to help and join the department in a full-time capacity.”
“State really needs to work on its pipeline for hiring from former interns because there’s a lot of great ones, and I think we lose a lot of potential talent,” the official added. Giving interns paychecks, State Department officials and interns who spoke to Foreign Policy unanimously argued, would also get supervisors to make sure interns were doing substantive work so the office would get its money’s worth out of them.
The State Department takes about 1,200 interns per year in both domestic and overseas positions, according to a State Department spokesperson. It also has other programs, including some paid fellowships, for students and new graduates—including the prestigious Pickering and Rangel fellowships aimed at bringing students from underrepresented communities and minority groups into the U.S. Foreign Service. As to why its interns remain unpaid, the State Department shifts the blame onto Congress. “To pay the students in this program, the department requires statutory authority from the Congress and appropriated funds, which we have been working closely with the Hill to garner support,” the spokesperson said. “We agree that expanding paid internships will enhance opportunities for low-income candidates, and we hope to be able to significantly expand those opportunities, pending legislative authority and funding.”
The department asked for funding for a new $20 million paid internship program in fiscal year 2022, according to the spokesperson.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro and Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin crafted coinciding legislation to appropriate funding for paid State Department internships this year, which was folded into the House’s State Department authorization bill and sent to the Senate. Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the language, but Senate Republicans in other committees removed it from the Senate version of the bill, which passed as part of a larger $770 billion defense policy bill on Wednesday, according to several sources familiar with the negotiations.
“Sadly, Senate Republicans would not clear on any language that included too strong of a pro-diversity message or paid internships for low-income students,” one of the sources said. At the time of this writing, the State Department’s 2022 internship openings were still advertised as unpaid.
As a student in Washington, Tammy Nguyen was juggling classes with part-time jobs to support her and her family. But she was also eying internships to jump-start her career in foreign policy. In 2018, she applied to a congressional office (she declined to say which) and, to her delight, got an offer.
“I knew it was unpaid, but I thought I could be clever enough to negotiate around this,” she said. She reached out to the congressional office and asked for flexibility given her financial situation. “I asked if I could do some things virtually, asked if the hours could be reduced. I pleaded my case.” To no avail. The office revoked the offer and went with another student who could work longer hours unpaid.
“From a very early part of college, it’s a collective experience among low-income students around here to have this happen, especially those pursuing careers in the foreign-policy field,” she said.
Still, everyone knows it’s next to impossible to get that first job in the field without an internship or two, however unfair the system is. “For junior staff, hiring managers typically look for people with experience, primarily internships,” Rizzo said. “So if someone looking for an entry-level position doesn’t have that prior experience, they can be at a disadvantage right out of the gate. It’s not a good system.”
Many of the unpaid interns who spoke to Foreign Policy expressed how privileged they felt to be able to take unpaid internships in the first place.
One former Capitol Hill intern expressed how they were “so grateful to come from a family where I didn’t need the financial support of a paid internship” but also felt like from the ethics side of things, their labor should have been “financially compensated, no matter what it is.” Even the students who can afford to take unpaid internships agree the practice is unfair.
In Nguyen’s case, one internship proved to be a saving grace just as she began to seriously question whether she could afford to stay in the foreign-policy career field. The Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG), a small nonprofit organization focused on philanthropy in the peace and security fields, took her on as a summer fellow and agreed to pay her $15 per hour, offered her a housing stipend, and even provided a “networking stipend” to help her afford to get coffees with other professionals in the field after she was accepted to their program and explained her financial situation to them.
Alexandra Toma, executive director of PSFG, told Foreign Policy she prioritizes paying interns because she too struggled with affording unpaid internships early in her career. “Every organization, small or large, has a budget. And you make priorities. You put your money where your mouth is,” Toma said.
Nguyen said her experience at PSFG convinced her to stay in the field, and it paid off. She earned a prestigious Rangel fellowship with the State Department and is planning to join the U.S. Foreign Service after completing her master’s degree at Harvard University in 2023.
Of the more than two dozen current and recently former interns interviewed, Nguyen’s case—of an organization providing such structured financial support and mentorship—proved to be the exception rather than the rule.
If unpaid interns are grateful for the opportunity, the practice itself is starting to tar the image of the organizations they work for—even convincing some interns to switch gears and avoid the foreign-policy field entirely.
One former think tank intern, who received a small living stipend from his organization, described how he asked for a modest increase in the stipend because he feared he would run out of money after underestimating the cost of living in Washington. His supervisor rebuffed his offer, informing him that program funding was tight; they couldn’t afford it.
Later that same evening, the intern helped staff a roundtable dinner for the think tank with around two dozen former ambassadors, government officials, and other dignitaries at an upscale Washington restaurant. He later learned the price tag for the dinner was several thousand dollars—several multiples higher than his monthly stipend. He said he’s reevaluating whether he wants to pursue a career in foreign policy now.
Few people know the internship game better than David Fletcher. A career advisor at American University’s School of International Service, Fletcher has been helping AU’s students get jobs and internships around Washington for 16 years. He estimates he’s had at least 10,000 appointments with students and graduates to help them find internships and jobs.
He’s had talented students who should have been a shoo-in for a promising Capitol Hill internship passed over for less qualified candidates—whose parents happened to be deep-pocket campaign donors to the lawmaker in question. He’s mentored students trying to sort out how to juggle a sorely needed internship with the need to cobble together money for food and rent. He’s had students opt out of applying for internships in the foreign-policy field entirely because they knew they couldn’t afford it.
Fletcher is starting to witness a change in culture. “The pattern is definitely working towards paid because I think there are ways that these organizations are being shamed,” he said. But still, he estimates around half of internships that are advertised on American University’s job boards for students are unpaid. “If an organization doesn’t have to pay, they try not to,” he added.
Things are slow to change, however, because there’s still a steady supply of well-to-do students who are more able to work for free, even if other students can’t manage it. For prestigious think tanks, nonprofits, and agencies like the State Department, “oftentimes, those organizations of premiere name brands are not willing to pay because they look at it as, ‘Hey, it’s an honor to work for us, and it’s going to be a reward just having State Department on the resume,’” Fletcher said.
Laws regulating internships are much sparser and less defined than the laws regulating traditional employment. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act requires for-profit companies to pay their employees for work, but interns may not be classified as employees if the employer can prove it is the intern, not the employer, who is the “primary beneficiary” of the arrangement.
This leaves legal wiggle room for employers to argue that their interns are gaining more skills and experience out of the internship, even with zero pay, than the employer is gaining from the intern’s work—something that can be arbitrary and difficult to measure.
It also allows some Washington offices to rely on nepotism to staff up their internship programs—including offices on Capitol Hill, where three congressional aides told Foreign Policy it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to dole out internships to children of well-connected campaign donors. (None would go on record with examples.)
Furthermore, the laws on paying employees at for-profit companies don’t apply to the raft of nonprofit organizations in the foreign-policy arena.
The legal gray areas and seams regarding internships have, in the past, left interns vulnerable to exploitation and harassment from their employers. In 2013, a New York federal district court ruled that Lihuan Wang could not advance a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer, a media conglomerate. At the time her boss was sexually harassing her, she was an intern, so she wasn’t legally considered an employee of the company.
The state of New York updated its laws in 2014 to extend more protections to interns, but the extent of protections for interns still vary state-by-state, and in some cases depend on whether an intern is paid or unpaid.
It’s unclear how closely the federal government tracks internships or polices companies and organizations on whether they’re skirting federal law regarding how they treat or compensate interns. As one case in point shows, no government agency appears to track the number of internships in the Washington area, where foreign-policy internships are most concentrated. Spokespeople for the U.S. Labor Department, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Washington’s Department of Employment Services all told Foreign Policy their agencies don’t track such data on interns.
After dropping out of school, Vera’s memories of his internship experiences kept nagging at him. “For me, the most vivid memory was walking down the hallways of Congress, looking around, and realizing that no one looked like me except the custodian,” he said. (Vera was born in Colombia but was raised in the United States.) “I think that was probably the most eye-opening thing. I was like, ‘wow, this is the body that’s literally deciding how much we set aside for health care and education, everything, and it’s not really reflective of our communities.’”
At his White House internship, the dress code was formal business attire every day, but he couldn’t afford multiple suits. “I remember a staffer making a comment being like: ‘Do you have other clothing you can wear?’”
Then came a younger student he was helping mentor. “He told me that he had skipped out on buying groceries to pay for a dry-cleaning cost for his unpaid internship on the Hill,” Vera recalled. “And at that point, I just kind of knew that the cycle needed to end and that there could be a better way of doing this.”
That was the genesis for Vera’s next mission. He had a job at a public relations firm but decided to quit—“much to the displeasure of my family,” he recalled—and start a new organization focused on advocating for interns. “The fact is it’s not enough when just one Latino, one Black person succeeds,” he said. “It doesn’t fundamentally change institutions or policies. … So the way I look at it is: How can you get to the point where it’s not just one or two lucky people ‘making it’?”
His new organization’s purpose is in the name: Pay Our Interns (POI).
“I started POI with like a thousand dollars. It came in my last paycheck,” he said. At the beginning, it was unclear whether POI would go anywhere. No organizations were interested in funding POI at the beginning. Vera worked 12 hours a day some days to get POI started—“from like 4 in the morning to like 4 or 5 p.m.”—then worked as a server in the evenings.
But eventually, his persistence began to pay off, with one big target in mind: Congress. He and his small team reached out to all 535 congressional offices—100 Senate offices and 435 House of Representatives offices—advocating for legislation that would pay congressional interns. Congress finally approved pay for interns in a 2018 spending bill; many congressional staffers and outside advocacy groups credit POI for helping drive that change.
Now, POI has a team of five full-time employees in addition to two part-time staff and two paid interns, who all help advocate for fair intern pay at federal agencies, including the State Department, and are also targeting state legislatures to pressure them to pay their interns, beginning with California. Vera went back to school and got a bachelor’s degree in 2020. He is now in Los Angeles, where he’s found another fresh target with a big unpaid internship problem: the entertainment industry.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Anna Weber is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @annasweber