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#College2Career: Sarah Fenske on Why Unpaid Internships Are Worth It


One of the biggest challenges for entering college students is finding time to do everything they need to do, in order to prepare for a successful career after graduation. As part of PayScale’s College Salary Report, we asked several successful people to tell us how they bridged the gap between choosing a major and graduating to a satisfying career. For Sarah Fenske, Editor in Chief of the Riverfront Times and graduate of The College of Wooster, the answer was simple: gain work experience, in any way possible.

Sarah Fenske

(Photo Courtesy of Sarah Fenske)

PayScale: How did you choose your major?

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Sarah Fenske: I chose PoliSci because I was interested in politics and thought I’d go to law school. I later added an English major because I started realizing I wanted to be a journalist, instead – and I kept seeing all these internships that required majors in journalism or English. (My college didn’t have a journalism major.)

PayScale: Does it relate to what you wound up doing?

Sarah Fenske: Yes, although ironically, my political science major has related more directly than the English major I picked up expressly to be considered for journalism internships. Knowing about government and political philosophy gave me a huge advantage as a cub reporter over competitors who had spent four years studying how to write a lede! But I also really ended up enjoying my English major – it was wonderful to read so many interesting books and learn how to approach them with a critical eye.

PayScale: What’s the best thing you did during college, in terms of preparing for your eventual career?

Sarah Fenske: Volunteered for the campus newspaper. The work I did there led directly to landing an unpaid internship – the editor of the magazine was impressed with what I’d written, and also impressed that I was about to start as the campus paper’s editor in chief. Then that internship led directly to my first job after graduation – as a reporter at a mid-sized daily newspaper. Normally it would be pretty hard to land a gig like that without a journalism degree (or really any related coursework), but the magazine editor vouching for me got me in the door, and that led to an offer just a few weeks after graduation.

PayScale: What’s the biggest mistake you made, or what would you do differently?

Sarah Fenske: I let myself get too busy. When campus organizations tapped me for leadership positions, I always said yes – to the point that I wasn’t just editing the newspaper, I was co-chairing the campus volunteer network and working as a resident assistant and teaching Sunday school and balancing a number of other commitments as well. I got a little burnt out, partly because I was so terrified about having a great resume so I could land a good job. In retrospect, no one cared about nine-tenths of my resume – I’m not sure any of my employers have ever cared that I was Phi Beta Kappa, much less that I’d been elected to Campus Council. They cared only that I was a good reporter who could write well – and that someone they respected had vouched for me. (Again, that internship was crucial!)

PayScale: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Sarah Fenske: I can’t stress enough how short-sighted college students are when they worry about landing paid internships. Many unpaid internships will work with your schedule so you can take a paid job, too – in the summer of my unpaid internship, I was in the office only three days a week and spent my other days, and evenings, waiting tables. And even though it was a part-time internship, that opportunity literally changed my life.

Whenever possible, the key is to put the time in and, in the short term, care about learning a skill and making connections. If you’re good at what you do, paid employment will follow.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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