Screwing the intern: Students have to pay big money for summer credit

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It’s easy to complain about Carnegie Mellon. Maybe you wish for reduced tuition, cheaper parking, or even just free printing (after all, printing used to be free.) The problem is, all of these things cost money. My request, however, does not: I would like units. Nine, to be exact.

I had an unpaid internship last summer. About a month in advance, I started looking into the possibility of obtaining credit from Carnegie Mellon — you know, for all the blood, sweat, and tears (and paper cuts) requisite of any internship, particularly those of the completely unpaid variety.

I discovered one horrible, illogical rule: In order to receive credit for an internship, a student has to be enrolled in Carnegie Mellon during the semester of the internship.

In other words, you have to pay tuition. This is the policy for all of the colleges at Carnegie Mellon.

Under certain circumstances, this might not have been so bad. If my internship had been in Pittsburgh, I might have planned to take classes anyway. Or, if I had a money tree in my backyard, coins and bills might have fallen freely, like acorns and leaves.

Unfortunately, neither was the case. My internship was in Richmond, Va., and I found the prospect of a six-hour commute somewhat intimidating. And as for the money tree, it was already in critical condition after two years of paying Carnegie Mellon’s regular tuition. Double drat.

From here, the policy can go one of two ways: If your employer doesn’t care whether or not you get credit, you stop; if he or she does, you have a few options.

First, you can write a letter while tip-toeing on egg shells, making sure to include words like “eligible” and “qualified” with respect to your ability to receive credit. The letter will be true, since you are eligible/qualified for credit — you just have to pay. Hopefully, this should trick your boss-to-be into thinking you’ll be getting credit, even though you actually won’t.

Now, certain employers are picky about receiving proof of credit. In this case, you can arrange to get one unit of credit in the fall semester. Most people outside of the Carnegie Mellon stratosphere assume one unit to be fair compensation; they don’t realize it’s worth next to nothing due to our inflated system of credits.

Last, if your employer insists that you receive credit for your internship over the summer, the only course of action is to register (i.e. pay) for one unit of summer classes.

You can calculate the cost by dividing the current tuition for one semester by 36. Using last year’s tuition, that’s about $477. If I wanted to pay for nine units of credit — what I would get easily from an internship during the fall or spring — the bill would come to nine times that amount: about $4300.

As for me, my employer didn’t mind that I wasn’t getting credit, so I dropped it. I was busy wrapping up my spring semester; and besides, I didn’t want to piss off my boss-to-be by asking him to send some carefully worded emails to the Carnegie Mellon powers that be.

It almost makes the university look like an insurance company — keep adding hoops for students to jump through, and eventually everybody stops jumping.

But please, don’t think I’m incapable of looking on the bright side. Summer internships — paid or unpaid, credited or not — are invaluable.

Sure, there’s grunt work. I did my time at a City Paper-esque publication where I worked in the editorial department. I filed, I phone-called, I e-mailed. I addressed, I stamped, and I licked (envelopes). Once, I even got coffee.

That being said, I learned a lot, too. I wrote several articles and countless blurbs about everything from The Simpsons to something called Monkey-Picked Tea. I had numerous conversations with my boss and other higher-ups about the intricacies of journalism (ethics, serial commas), and confirmed my suspicion that I wouldn’t mind working in a place like that for real (i.e., for cash money). I also added a line to my résumé and have a couple guaranteed letters of recommendation under my belt.

All of that is to be expected from a good summer internship, and I’m not complaining. Money would have been a bonus — but I think I was paid well enough via the aforementioned.

So, why even bother asking about the units? Because it would be so easy, so painless, on the part of the university. I don’t want a new dining facility, or even for Carnegie Mellon to fill in the hole where the Gates building hopefully/maybe/possibly will one day appear. I just want units.

I’ll even pay for them, as long as the price is fair. What should it cost – for one person to add a “9” to the number of units on my transcript? A “thank you”? A pat on the back? A cookie? Put it on my tab.

The point is, Carnegie Mellon doesn’t exactly have the best reputation for compassion toward undergraduates. Everyone has their complaints, some of which are easier to solve than others. Some students wish that the buses would come on time, that electricity and magnetism made more sense, or even that we weren’t in Pittsburgh.

But when a really simple suggestion comes along — one that doesn’t even require money — the university might as well fix it. Students are always going to complain, why not make at least one of them happy?