Growing Pains

The Metcalf program is one of the most ambitious efforts by any university to bring a modicum of fairness to the inherently unfair unpaid-intern economy. If UChicago needs to make its program something worth emulating.

By Ankit Jain

Paul Lou / The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

February 16, 2015

It wasn’t always like this. The University of Chicago was long known as a school that taught students excellent theory but left them woefully unprepared for the real world. Today, while theory is still important, you can often see students in ties and pencil skirts pacing in Ida Noyes Hall preparing for interviews with heavyweights like Goldman Sachs and Google.

The University’s career programming has grown significantly over the last decade. A lot of that growth is due to the Metcalf internship program. Metcalf internships provide “paid, substantive internships to students of the College in numerous fields,” according to the Alumni & Friends website. Last spring, the University announced that it had placed more than 1,000 students in Metcalf internships for that year: a huge increase from the 450 internships offered in 2010–2011. This is the result of a concerted multi-year expansion.

But this rapid expansion has not come without consequences. In the rush to expand, the system has become somewhat disorganized, while also seemingly inflating how many students have actually benefited.

These problems will become even more significant as the University moves its expansion into jet speed. Just last October, the University announced a major new initiative called No Barriers, which is designed to increase the number of low-income students at the University and to help these students succeed once they matriculate. Part of the initiative calls for an even bigger expansion of the number of Metcalfs offered, and for Metcalf internships to be guaranteed for certain low-income students between their first and second years. By expanding the number of paid internships available, the University hopes to level the playing field for low- and moderate-income students who can’t afford to take unpaid internships.

The question is whether the University can accomplish its goals in a sustainable manner. The task it faces is massive. It took 17 years to build a system that successfully secured students 1,000 paid internships per year. In three years the University hopes to add 1,000 more.

 

Flexibility breeds growth but also disorganization

A Metcalf internship is typically created through relationships the Metcalf office creates with employers. Once a relationship is established, the University will list an internship position at that company on the Chicago Career Connections (CCC) website, which is only accessible to University students. Students can apply to as many internships as they want by submitting a resume, cover letter, and other materials as required on the CCC website.

Daw said it is up to the employers whether those materials are forwarded directly to them or whether Career Advancement screens applicants first. If employers ask Career Advancement for screening, the office will sort through the applications and select a certain number of students, usually around six, for interviews. These interviews can be conducted by alumni within Career Advancement or by the employer itself, as decided by the employer. If conducted by alumni, the alumnus/alumnae interviewer will send a recommended list of students to the employer after the interviews. The employer then makes the final decision on whom to hire.

Career Advancement will also go outside this typical process and help students turn independently-found unpaid internships into paid Metcalf internships. Part of the University’s success in expanding the number of Metcalfs offered is due to this high level of flexibility in setting up internships.

“I think students think Metcalf is kind of a one-process-fits-all, and it really is so much more complex,” Daw said. “When you’re dealing with the number of employers that we are dealing with now, and the number of students that are interested, every single relationship might take a different spin. So there really isn’t one tried and true process. Essentially, we want to facilitate a relationship between a student and an employer.”

Daw said the Metcalf office’s flexible approach makes the program work better than those of other schools. “I think other models where things are very stringent and too heavily process-oriented make it harder for employers to want to participate,” she said.

Fourth-year Caety Klingman found out the benefits of this approach two summers ago, when Career Advancement essentially created a Metcalf for her. Klingman was interested in working at a nonprofit in the Bay Area, but could find exactly one such job listed on CCC: in Human Resources, where she had no experience. So she scheduled a meeting with Meredith Daw. Through contacts the office already had at the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco, Daw was able to get Klingman an interview for an internship at the organization in a field better suited to her: marketing. She received and accepted the offer after the interview. “It just worked out really well. I, when I graduate, have every plan of applying to there and to the one in Chicago,” Klingman said.

In at least one case, Career Advancement even proactively reached out to a student to help fund his internship. Fourth-year Will Fernandez applied to 270 Strategies in between his second and third years directly through the company’s website and was given an unpaid internship. Unbeknownst to him, Career Advancement was offering a paid Metcalf internship at the same company. Career Advancement reached out and asked Fernandez if he would like his unpaid internship to be converted into a paid Metcalf internship.

Fernandez said he thinks Career Advancement found out about his offer either through the office’s existing relationship with 270 Strategies or through an offhand comment about the offer Fernandez made to a staff member at the Institute of Politics (IOP). Fernandez accepted the Metcalf offer and was able to work a funded internship that summer.

Career Advancement’s flexibility greatly benefited Fernandez and Klingman. However, it can also lead to serious miscommunications, which in one case almost cost a student his salary. Reliefwatch (formerly Project SAM), a startup founded by Daniel Yu, is one of the hundreds of companies hosting Metcalf interns. It is also one of many Metcalf partner organizations headed by a University affiliate—Yu was a part of the class of 2015, but dropped out to run his company. Yu has received a lot of help from the head of UChicago Careers in Entrepreneurship (UCIE), Jerry Huang. It was during one of their many discussions that Yu brought up the idea of getting an intern for his firm.

“It wasn’t anything formal, it wasn’t proposing to even have a Metcalf or to have any kind of school funding or anything involved whatsoever. But he was just like, ‘oh, just send me along a description of what kind of position you’d be looking for, and I’ll see what I can do,’” Yu said.

Yu sent Huang a description of his company. Much to Yu’s surprise, within a week, an internship at his company was posted on the CCC website. “Somebody else told me that I had a Metcalf position posted up,” Yu said. “I was actually surprised to see that we had a Metcalf. And sure enough it was the description I had sent out. They actually put it up word for word.” Yu started getting emails from students interested in the internship, and ended up selecting third-year John Preysner as his intern.

The trouble started, Yu said, when Preysner told him a month into the internship that he had not been paid. Yu contacted Huang, who told Yu to contact Amanda Thompson in the Metcalf office. Yu emailed Thompson explaining the situation, and was told that there had been a mix-up and there was actually no funding available for his intern. “To me, [that] made absolutely no sense because they had posted up my description as a paid position, [never] telling me that there’s no funding for the Metcalf intern. Which to my knowledge, Metcalf internships existed to be subsidized by the University,” he said.

In a statement, Huang said that Yu misinterpreted what was said to him, and that funding for internships administered under the purview of UCIE is “for academic year internships only.” Huang added, “Daniel had thought our program could provide summer internship funding, but that was incorrect—we had not offered companies summer funding.”

Yu said that his relationship with Huang has been fantastic, but faults the Metcalf office for a lack of organization. “It’s just so bizarre and I don’t know, at the very least it was a complete communications breakdown,” he said.

Yu did not want his intern, Preysner, to go unpaid that summer when he expected to be paid, so he gave up his own salary for those three months to pay Preysner. “I felt that the last person who should be suffering because of all of this is John,” Yu said. Preysner declined to comment for this article.

In most fields, but especially in entrepreneurship, it seems like the majority of Metcalfs are negotiated on an ad hoc basis, with no set process from year to year. Victor Kung (A.B. 14) provides another example of this. He was able to receive a Metcalf internship through an informal conversation with Huang. “I told [Huang] that [my] internship was unpaid, and he told me we could just put it through the Metcalf system. So he sent an email to Christopher Kocel, who runs the Metcalf program, and then we just made my internship a Metcalf,” he said. “I basically asked for a Metcalf and I got one.”

Career Advancement’s relationship with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) is more organized but also very informal. PDS’s Internship Coordinator, Stephen Albers, said that though he is in close communication with Career Advancement every year during the selection process, there is no formal process they go through in examining Metcalf interns. The two sides simply email each other information as it becomes available, with a general timeline but no specific dates.

In part because of this informal set up, the two sides fell behind last year and by the time PDS was ready to start interviewing UChicago students, many were receiving offers from elsewhere that they would have to decide on before PDS could extend any offers. Career Advancement ended up giving PDS 20 different recommended students so that they could find students who had not already committed, according to Albers. This was much higher than the five to 10 names that Albers said is usually the norm.

In a survey of students who had applied to Metcalfs, students seemed to agree that the system was disorganized. Students were asked to rate the organization of the Metcalf system on a five-point scale, with 1 meaning the system was extremely organized, and 5 meaning the system was extremely disorganized. Of the 52 respondents, 68 percent rated the system a 3 or higher, and 35 percent rated the system a 4 or higher.

 

Perception equals reality?

Students seem to be unaware of the level to which Career Advancement will go to help them get the best paid experience. “I had no idea she [Daw] would be able to basically get them to create a position for me, and I had no idea you could sort of create a Metcalf. Like, no clue,” Klingman said. “I don’t think anyone knows.”

Several students expressed dissatisfaction that the program seemed too rigid. This is because most students don’t seem to know that they can receive funding from the University for internships outside of those listed on the CCC website.

Students often complain about the confusing and slow website, the alumni interview process (where students are interviewed by college alumni who in some cases do not even work in the same field as the company they are applying for), and the length of time it takes to get responses.

“I’ve struggled going through the major system with it just because of the way they do the interview process and the response system, and overall I think that part could be better,” third-year Maia O’Meara said. “So I found it to be a frustrating application process but really satisfying as a program once I made it past the hurdles.”

The ability of Career Advancement to turn independently found internships into Metcalfs is better known to international students, who often have to work in Metcalf internships if they want to have paid jobs in America. All international students come to America on F1 student visas. On these visas, students are only allowed to work at a paid full-time job for 12 months. This work is referred to as Optional Practical Training (OPT). After 12 months of OPT work, international students must get an H1 visa. However, if the work a student does is educational in nature, it is known as Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) and does not count towards the twelve-month cap. To get a paid internship counted as CPT, students must go through the University, which in most cases means that they must get a Metcalf internship.

International students treasure these 12 months of work time on student visas, because it makes it easier for them to get a job in the U.S. after graduation without having to jump through the hoops of getting a new visa. For this reason, the Career Advancement office has developed somewhat of a process, in coordination with the Office of International Affairs (OIA), to turn paid internships found by international students into Metcalfs. International students reach out to Career Advancement and the office then talks with the employer before making a decision whether to count the internship as a Metcalf. The student is still paid through the employer regardless.

“We don’t do any of the processing for OPT or CPT work. We’re not allowed to do that federally. But we work with OIA to establish this process,” Daw, the Executive Director of Career Advancement, said.

The ability to get internships labeled as Metcalfs, and thus not use up precious OPT time, is a godsend for many international students. Fourth-year Greta Golz had her internship at J.P. Morgan converted into a Metcalf so she could count it towards CPT time. “The fact that you can work at corporations or just any kind of internship that’s not actually at the University…that’s a huge benefit for the international community,” she said.

Even Golz, however, said she found out about this program through friends rather than from the University. This lack of communication by the Metcalf office to the students it serves about the numerous opportunities it offers outside the CCC website is, frankly, baffling.

 

The numbers game

Daw said that all of this flexibility is meant to serve one goal: to get as many students paid summer internships as possible. “At the end of the day, in my role as career director, whether it’s called Metcalf or not, I think that’s really not the story. The story is, are more of our students getting summer experiences?” she said.

In some instances, however, the office seems to give Metcalfs to students who don’t particularly want them or benefit from them. One student, whom I will refer to as Mary, applied for an internship at a bank through the company’s website in between her second and third years. Mary was given the internship, which was funded by the bank, and because she was a member of UChicago Careers in Business (UCIB), notified her advisor, as required. Several months after accepting the offer, she received an email from Career Advancement congratulating her on her Metcalf internship. “I am not entirely sure why they decided to make it a Metcalf,” Mary said. She didn’t reply to the email, and declined to fill out the end-of-summer report required of Metcalf interns, citing the bank’s confidentiality rules.

Mary accepted an offer to return to the same company in the summer between her third and fourth years. She was again sent an email saying her internship would be considered a Metcalf. This time, she decided to ask why. “I responded to the email and said ‘are you sure that this is a Metcalf? I am applying externally from the school and I will not be paid by the school,’ and they sort of just sidestepped my question and responded to another question,” she said.

Mary said she wished that Career Advancement would be more open about what is and isn’t a Metcalf internship. “It doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t really have that big of an impact on me but it did kind of bother me in the sense that I knew that it wasn’t a truthful representation of the program. I knew that they were using me as an additional number for their statistics,” she said.

Daw said that Career Advancement will sometimes turn internships found independently by students at big banks into Metcalfs so that those students, vastly outnumbered in a sea of Metcalf interns, don’t feel left out when Career Advancement holds events only for Metcalf interns at the banks. “The firms felt very awkward, because you’ve got 20 students that have Metcalfs, and there’s maybe one or two that are not Metcalfs but they’re all from the University of Chicago. And so the firms really talked to us and said, ‘well, can we just put these students under the Metcalf umbrella?’” she said.

However, Daw said that students always have to give their consent before they are labeled as Metcalf interns in this way. She said she was unsure what happened in Mary’s case.

Another student who requested anonymity, and whom I will refer to as Jordan, provided a similar story to Mary’s. Jordan was awarded a Metcalf internship the summer between his first and second years at a bank. The company paid for his entire salary. When the company asked him to return the next year he agreed, but transferred to a different office in Singapore. Jordan told his advisor what he was doing, and then, he said, “I got an email in the spring saying, ‘congrats on your Metcalf. Here’s information about the program’…. I think when I got the email I just asked, ‘just to make clear, the [internship] is a Metcalf?’ Then [they said], ‘If you want it to be it can. Otherwise, if not, that’s fine.’ I said, ‘yeah, that’s okay.’”

While it’s true, as Daw said, that Jordan was told his internship did not have to be a Metcalf if he didn’t want it to be, that offer was not made until he sent a clarifying email. Both Jordan and Mary said they know several other people who were automatically considered Metcalf interns when they received return offers from companies they were originally Metcalf interns for, even though they did not reapply through the Metcalf system.

Jordan said nothing really changed for him when the internship was labeled a Metcalf, and he did not have any problems with the way Career Advancement handled the situation.

Even in less egregious cases, where students ask for paid internships they found themselves to be converted into Metcalfs, like in the case of international students who simply use the Metcalf label for visa purposes, it’s not clear how the internships should be counted. Reflecting on her own experience, Greta Golz said, “They didn’t really work to make this a Metcalf internship…. So I think there’s definitely that aspect of it that it sounds good, that it’s nice for them to be able to say, there’s one more student working at J.P. Morgan through the Metcalf internship.”

Daw said that while she couldn’t give an exact percent breakdown of the different kinds of Metcalf internships, “the vast majority” are found by Career Advancement and posted on CCC.

In addition to not funding a number of internships claimed as part of the Metcalf program, Career Advancement also does not fund a majority of the internships it does list on CCC. In these cases, Career Advancement just facilitates the process through which the student is hired.

Further, Daw said, employers do not have to hire any UChicago students for posted Metcalfs. “There’s absolutely no requirement that an employer has to take a Metcalf. From the very start of the program back in 1997, that was outlined,” she said. “At the end of the day, the employer calls the shots on who they hire, when they hire, if they hire…. If in the application process they do not find a student who meets their needs, it is a free market and they do not need to hire a student from the University of Chicago.”

In the 2013–2014 school year, Daw said that between 30 and 40 firms with whom a Metcalf internship was advertised did not end up selecting any UChicago students. This aspect of the program is not clearly described on the Career Advancement website; it is referenced, but airbrushed over in the “Metcalf Flow” section. Career Advancement does explain this in the information sessions it holds.

Yu offered pointed criticism about the Metcalf office’s tendency to oversell the number of interns placed. He believes this numbers game was why the University was so quick to include his internship as part of the Metcalf program. They expected him to pay the intern selected, meaning the office had to do little to no work, but could report that one more student had gotten an internship through the Metcalf program.

“I think, from that perspective, to me it just sounds like they’re trying to get as many internships branded under this program as possible so that they can then report back and say, ‘wow, look at how successful our program is being. We’ve already created thousands of internships,’ which is—in reality all these internships existed previously. You just decided to now group them together,” he said.

 

Benefits of a brand

Despite all these caveats, the funding that the Metcalf program provides directly —even if it is only for a minority of internships—has greatly benefited the students who receive it.

Fourth-year Will Craft, who interned at a small online news organization called The Cancer Letter in the summer of 2014 and got his independently-found unpaid internship converted into a Metcalf, said that the program helped jump-start his career. “I’m not sure if I could have worked at The Cancer Letter this summer without funding from the Metcalf program. And working at The Cancer Letter, I’ve started my career. Because I’m going to become a journalist, and the experience and the skills I’ve developed here, I really do think will benefit me for a very long time,” he said.

One student, whom I will call Alfred, also pointed out that having so many internships listed in one location is very useful. “The whole point of Metcalf is that it makes stuff easier because it keeps it in a centralized location where you can look out for internships. So it’s harder to look out for internships outside of the Metcalf system,” Alfred said.

The Metcalf program also seems to go beyond most other schools’ internship programs in the number of internships listed and the funding available for them. “I think that Metcalf seems to be pretty unique among peer institutions and the UChicago schools. I definitely don’t see that level of commitment for [other] universities in trying to ensure that students have internships. So I definitely think that UChicago is a step ahead,” Lynda Lopez (A.B. ’14), founder of the Socioeconomic Diversity Alliance at UChicago, said.

Metcalfs may not be guaranteed, but UChicago students applying through the program certainly seem to have a leg up on their competition. After all, only three percent of Metcalf listings went unfilled in the ’13–’14 school year.

Albers compared the program to a very strong reference. “[It’s like] if I know someone here in the office who does really great work, and they refer someone to me… and I know when they vouch for someone they wouldn’t do that if it weren’t true. So I think it’s just similar to that. Yeah, it helps to have strong references and I would consider the Metcalf program a strong reference, and I think it does give you an edge as an applicant,” he said.

The main benefit of the Metcalf program is its brand. All Metcalf interns, or at least the vast majority, are evaluated with the general applicant pool, and none are guaranteed internships. But the strong work of previous Metcalf interns makes companies more likely to hire a UChicago student applying through the Metcalf program than anyone else.

So perhaps the Metcalf program is overhyped. But maybe it also needs this hype to build up the cachet that is its main strength. This is the conclusion that Victor Kung, who had an unpaid internship converted to a Metcalf and who also worked at Reliefwatch with Daniel Yu (although he said he had no knowledge of the incident with John Preysner), has come to. “Of course the program is hyped up because at the end of the day a Metcalf internship is very much just an internship, just through the University of Chicago’s partnership with other organizations. There’s nothing really special about it. It’s just a label…. On one side they definitely try to play it up whenever they can, but on the other hand it’s really important for them to do so,” Kung said.

 

To become a national model

The upcoming expansion of Metcalfs comes as college internships are becoming more and more important for career prospects. A December 2012 study by Marketplace and The Chronicle of Higher Education found that employers placed more emphasis on work experience during college than they did on grades or what school students attended.

Many of these internships are unpaid. Stephen Lurie (A.B. ’13), who has written extensively on unpaid internships, says that this creates a problem for both low-income students and for American society at large. “The unpaid internship regime disadvantages low-income students by precluding their participation in industries or companies that they would otherwise perfectly match,” he wrote in an email. “Besides causing a fundamental injustice to those low-income students who might otherwise be well qualified, this risks a greater class schism for our country. If only high-income individuals get to the first step on the ladder—particularly in elite or selective sectors—they will eventually be the ones in control.”

It is perhaps with problems like this in mind that the University has embarked on its rapid expansion of Metcalf internships. But in addition to providing more opportunities, Career Advancement must also focus on making existing and future opportunities as easy to obtain as possible. The benefits of more paid internships will not be evident if the system through which these internships are obtained is so frustrating to use and so disorganized that it becomes an obstacle itself.

The Metcalf program is not the only internship program facing these organizational issues. Sophia LaFontant, the Program Assistant for PDS, said that she has faced similar problems with numerous other schools. The Metcalf program, however, has much higher ambitions than programs at other schools.

“No other university in the world has a program like this, and when we go to conferences or we have meetings with career directors, it’s the envy of all the schools,” Daw said in an article for UChicago’s website in September of 2006, back when the school had 40 percent of the Metcalf internships available now.

“I think we’re a national model,” she added in 2014.

If the University really wants to be a national model, though, it needs to find a better balance between flexibility and organization, and be more transparent about what the program is and isn’t.

Becoming less flexible might make it harder to expand so rapidly, because as Daw said, a more rigid program might make employers less likely to participate. One solution to this quandary would be for the office to more fully embrace the idea of funding internships students find themselves. Different departments and institutions within the University already provide some funding for independently-found internships, but none of the existing programs has close to the amount of money that Metcalf does. And the Metcalf office has already proved willing to distribute this money in a non-standardized way. Why not publicize this aspect of the program, organize and formalize it, and allow students to drive the growth of Metcalf internships themselves? This would also allow the office staff to focus on better organizing the relationships they already have.

In addition, Career Advancement should be more open about what the program does not guarantee and does not fund, and how it counts a Metcalf internship for its advertising materials. While this may tarnish the program’s label, the strong work of the students it has placed and the large number of different internships it offers and will offer in the future have done enough to sell the program. A little more transparency would help, not hurt.

The Metcalf program is one of the most ambitious efforts by any university to bring a modicum of fairness to the inherently unfair unpaid-intern economy. If UChicago really wants to see this type of program adopted across the country and slowly eradicate the noxious weed of unpaid internships, it needs to make its program something worth emulating.

EDITORS’ NOTE: THE WRITER WORKED AT A METCALF INTERNSHIP AT THE PUBLIC DEFENDER SERVICE FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA IN THE SUMMER OF 2013 AND AT UNPAID INTERNSHIPS IN THE SUMMERS OF 2012 AND 2014. HE ALSO APPLIED TO 270 STRATEGIES THROUGH THE METCALF PROGRAM THE SAME YEAR AS FERNANDEZ. WHERE ONLY FIRST NAMES APPEAR, NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE CONFIDENTIALITY OF THE SOURCES.