One of the main reasons Medill fourth-year Chloe Hilles chose to attend Northwestern was the University’s journalism residency program. The program, often referred to as JR, is a quarter-long internship program offered to journalism students in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. It stood out to Hilles as a unique opportunity for students to gain real-world experience in professional newsrooms that other journalism schools could not provide. But despite not taking any classes and working full-time at her JR, Hilles pays her regular tuition to Northwestern. While she received a stipend and a grant, she does not make an hourly wage.
The JR program isn’t Northwestern’s only internship program. Students in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) go on a quarter-long practicum during their third year, and students in all schools can intern at companies in the Chicagoland area through the Chicago Field Studies (CFS) program. While these programs present opportunities for academic enrichment and career advancement, inequities arise in all three programs when it comes to financially compensating students for their work.
Hilles is doing her JR at Injustice Watch, a nonprofit Chicago journalism organization, where she reports on criminal justice and the prison system. She’s one of several recipients of a one-time $1,250 stipend from Medill intended to “help offset relocation and living costs,” according to Medill’s Support & Resources page on the Student Enrichment Service’s website. Despite these goals, Hilles says the payment only covers about one month of her Evanston rent.
The JR program is designed to give journalism students access to real newsrooms so they can gain experience, make connections and jumpstart their careers. Some students are compensated handsomely for their work – tech company Zendesk offers a $35 hourly wage to its JR students.
Students who only receive the stipend and work full time for eight hours a day for the entirety of the 11-week quarter will make $1,250 for about 440 hours of work. This amounts to $2.83 hourly, about 39% of the federal minimum wage and 22% of Cook County’s – and Evanston’s – minimum wage. The stipend provided by the University pales in comparison to sites that pay students upwards of $20 per hour.
“It is a quote-unquote graduation requirement, but we know it’s not really,” Hilles says. “You can take an alternative path, but if you come to Medill, you’ve heard about the JR your entire experience.”
Hilles is correct – despite its ubiquity, the JR program is technically not a graduation requirement for Medill. As an alternative to JR, students can gain professional experience through an approved outside internship and take on a regular quarter of four classes, at least three of which must be in Medill. Medill students must complete seven core classes before they can go on JR, and any student who earns a C or lower in a 300-level Medill course in the two quarters preceding their JR cannot go on their JR.
But many students, like Hilles, were drawn to Medill because of the JR program.
Medill fourth-year Margo Milanowski, who is completing her JR by working full-time at Popular Science, a digital magazine that focuses on science reporting, also received the stipend. Milanowski normally receives money through the federal work-study program, which provides students with a yearly allotment of financial aid they can earn through work-study jobs. Milanowski says she was unable to receive her work-study allotment this fall because of her full- time work commitment. While she would normally only work part-time for work-study, Milanowski said the compensation she received for her full-time JR was almost equivalent to the amount she would regularly receive from work-study each quarter.
“It’s not like I’m being compensated for my work,” Milanowski says. “I just have enough money to exist and to do what I need to do, which is how a normal quarter at Northwestern is. But normally I’m not working [full time], I’m doing classes.”
Hilles also forfeited her work-study job on campus this quarter to focus on her full-time internship, so she decided to apply for additional funding available to low-income students. Originally, Hilles says, she was advised that she did not qualify because the aid is mainly intended for students whose JRs would take them out of the Chicagoland area. Still, she managed to secure additional funding after explaining how much income she would lose.
“You can take an alternative path, but if you come to Medill, you’ve heard about the JR your entire experience.”CHLOE HILLES, MEDILL FOURTH-YEAR
THE SEARCH FOR HOUSING
Medill fourth-year Ata Shaheen had no idea that he was eligible for additional funding when he was applying for his JR.
Then the process got even more complicated.
Shaheen’s JR took him to Bremerton, Washington, where he worked as a reporter for the Kitsap Sun. In a small town like Bremerton, which has an estimated population of 43,000, he struggled to find online housing listings that weren’t fake or outdated. While he managed to find a sublease near his workplace, Shaheen had to navigate the entire process on his own.
According to an email from Medill Professor Karen Springen, director of the JR program, the University does not formally provide housing for JR students.
“We share a housing sheet with links suggested by past JR students,” Springen wrote in the email. “We suggest students reach out to alumni in the area and to co-workers at their JR sites for housing advice and information.”
Medill fourth-years Alexi Sandhu and Tiffany Xu share a JR site. Both students were assigned to SimplyBe., a personal branding agency, where they work three days in-person and two days remotely each week. The agency is based in Chicago, so the two are able to live in Evanston.
Still, their workplace isn’t easily accessible via public transportation, Sandhu says. To get to the agency in Wicker Park, the two interns would have to ride three separate CTA lines or walk about 20 minutes from the nearest Metra station. As a result, Sandhu and Xu, who both receive the University stipend, carpool on the days they work in-person, a solution that comes with its own set of challenges.
“I have a car, which is lucky, but most of the time I have to pay for parking, and that comes out to $20 a day,” Xu says, although she has since found a free parking lot. “I’m not super sure how far the [$1,250 stipend] would take me if I did have to consider housing and other expenses in addition to transportation.”
Because of the stress and financial strain associated with finding new housing, some JR students opted for remote internships this quarter.
“It was sad for me that I didn’t end up going anywhere, but I ultimately decided to stay remote because it would keep me at break-even,” Milanowski says. “Because of the pandemic, I’ve lost so much of my college experience, so doing a remote position offered me the opportunity to stay in Evanston and experience more college life with my friends, even if it’s not in a classroom setting.”
“I’m not super sure how far the [$1,250 stipend] would take me if I did have to consider housing and other expenses in addition to transportation.”TIFFANY XU, MEDILL FOURTH-YEAR
Outside Medill, SESP students are required to complete a quarter- long internship during their third year. This internship, known as the Junior Year Practicum (or practicum for short), has a goal similar to that of JR – giving SESP students the opportunity to get work experience in their intended career area before they graduate.
While JR students generally work full-time and do not take classes, practicum students work about 30 hours per week and take one three-hour course that meets on Fridays.
Like the JR program, the SESP practicum has its issues regarding student compensation. According to the SESP website, students can, but are not required to, receive compensation from their practicum site. However, SESP students who receive aid under the federal work-study program can receive their quarterly work-study grants during their practicums.
SESP fourth-year Lucas Vime-Olive did his practicum last spring at Holistic, a diversity and equity consulting firm. Vime-Olive says he was able to recoup the work-study funding from the University that he otherwise would not have received.
“But even with that, I have to pay my own rent, so [the work-study funding] isn’t really gonna cut it. So I did the 30 hours, but then I would work [a different job] at night,” Vime-Olive says. “It wasn’t a very great system set up [by the University].”
SESP third-year Helen Foster is also doing her practicum at Holistic. While Foster isn’t paid directly by the firm, the University gave her the full amount of her Fall Quarter work-study allotment, which she would otherwise have been unable to access without work-study.
Foster had the choice between a traditional in-person practicum or a remote practicum. After commuting to Chicago for a summer job, she was content with a remote position.
SESP fourth-year Beatrice Chao did her practicum in Summer 2020 at the Ministry of Health in Singapore. While most practicums were remote, Chao, an international student from Singapore, was able to secure an in-person internship to use as her practicum.
Chao saved money on food and housing by living with her mother. Each month, she was paid $1,000 Singapore Dollars, or about $740 USD, a sum that Chao describes as “really pathetic.”
CHICAGO FIELD STUDIES
Northwestern’s CFS program connects students to Chicago-based companies and organizations, where they intern for a quarter or over the summer. While it is not a program requirement for any degree, it allows students to gain professional work experience and also earn academic credit. Like SESP students, CFS students secure their internships the quarter beforehand and take a related class at the same time as the internship. They also aren’t guaranteed payment for their work.
Weinberg fourth-year Bibi Belknap Fernandez interned with the Chicago Bar Foundation, the charitable branch of the Chicago Bar Association that focuses on improving accessibility to the justice system, during Summer Quarter 2021 through CFS.
“I figured I would not be able to find a paid internship, and I knew that CFS could at least give me class credit if I did an internship,” she says.
Aside from compensated fare on a Ventra card supplied by the Chicago Bar Foundation, Belknap Fernandez’s internship was completely unpaid. On top of this, because she did her internship over the summer, Belknap Fernandez and her family had to pay summer tuition to cover the two-credit class she was required to take as part of the program.
Weinberg third-year Anna Wang did an internship through CFS the fall of her second year at the private equity branch of Accelerated Growth, a consulting company.
For her work at Accelerated Growth, Wang was paid a $2,000 stipend, or an estimated $4 hourly wage, but she still made more than other CFS students.
“Some [CFS interns] go completely unpaid for very technical work,” she says. “But, for example, Goldman Sachs does $36 an hour for a private wealth management role. The amount that students are paid doesn’t necessarily reflect how hard the work is.”
Wang pointed out that CFS has an Employer Advisory Board, made up of various outside partners whose job is to improve the CFS experience from a partnership perspective, but notes the volume of students makes it hard for the Board to mitigate issues with individual internship opportunities. Issues with CFS that the University could address include the number of staff and the funding the program receives, Wang says.
“CFS is also a bit understaffed of a program, and I think [CFS Associate Director] Karen Allen was saying how funding has become kind of limited,” Wang says. “It’s just understaffed and underfunded to some extent.”
To improve the SESP practicum, Vime-Olive says he wishes the site selection process was more lenient with its timing so that students would not have to take time during school breaks to start their internship search.
“It just wasn’t feasible with the time constraints that I had at the time, and I think that that’s applicable to most Northwestern students, just being busy and not really having the space or energy to look things up like that,” he says.
For Hilles, the most important aspect to change about JR is ensuring that students are fairly compensated for the work they do, either by their employers or by the University.
“These internships need to be comparably paid to working full- time, because you cannot expect students who have to pay for tuition, who have to pay to live here, in expensive Evanston, to take these unpaid internships,” she says. “Whether it’s a stipend or whether it’s hourly, however that’s done, Northwestern has a lot of money, and I think they can figure that out because we shouldn’t be paying tuition to have these unpaid internships.”