Diary of an intern

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map of a lifeCollage art by MARITES N. SISON

BEATRICE S. PAEZ  wrote this essay nearly a year ago, when she was feeling angry and despondent at her inability to find a full-time job that paid a living wage. She wasn’t alone. Many Millennials like her – about 16 per cent alone in Toronto – have been stuck in the wheel of endless (and mostly unpaid) internships that offer “work experience,” but no job in the end. 

This spring, in response to a widespread campaign against unpaid internships, which have been described as a form of modern slave labour, Ontario’s Labour Ministry will crack down on unpaid internships “across a variety of sectors.”

By some media estimates, there are about 300,000 Canadians working as unpaid interns.

Paez, who has since found full-time employment as a journalist, offers this essay as a tribute to these young, unsung workers of our time and to parents who support them.  With it, she writes, comes the hope that they may find labour that nurtures their talents, gives them pride, and uplifts their dignity.

Playing dress up in my mom’s vintage pumps salvaged from Woodstock, NY, lost its allure many moons ago. Growing up was something I earnestly looked forward to.

Unlike some of my peers, I marched straight out of university, wrapping up my degree in four years. I was wide-eyed and ready for the real world. I hadn’t forgotten what Dr. Seuss said in my childhood: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

The graduation afterglow followed me as I signed up for an internship at an arts NGO and later, a broadcast news company, both in Toronto. I logged in long hours, came to work brimming with fresh ideas to contribute, and held faith that there would be a place for me, if not there, then somewhere.

One place I’ve longed to be a part of has a distinct cacophony of sounds: the steady hum of talking heads on TV, fingers furiously typing, hushed, or as the case maybe, frenzied discussions over issues and ideas. The newsroom. I’m aware that it is undergoing seismic changes and layoffs are commonplace. I’m undeterred, but realistic enough that I’ve also expanded my job search and followed experts’ advice to “reconfigure my expectations.”

For nearly two years now, I’ve been grooming myself for the exit out of unemployment, hopping from internship to internship and doing freelance gigs on the side. While no opportunity is wasted, the day I land full-time, meaningful work will be my happiest yet.

It’s easy to slip into a rabbit hole, to get tangled in the wilderness of oversized anxieties and crushing disappointments, when you find yourself hitting the glass ceiling of your internment.

So-called entry-level opportunities are few and far between; oftentimes they demand two to five years of work experience. Four internships, minimum wage jobs, volunteer work, freelance gigs, plus a degree at one of Canada’s top-ranking universities do not count. Though my circumstance is not foreign to my peers in other parts of the world, knowing this provides little comfort. I’m left wondering where all my efforts will lead.

Unreciprocated emails sent to HR departments are like radio silence, grating and dispiriting. Worse still are those that dangle the possibility of something, make you jump through hoops and hurdles, and then vanish without as much a courtesy of an email to say, “Thanks, but…”

So deep is my yearning that these words tumbled out of me one afternoon:

Entries sent lit with hope/like glowing paper lanterns/released, floating /carrying untold dreams.

I could be any employer’s model worker. I’m hardworking, energetic, creative, resourceful, relentlessly curious, reasonably intelligent, always open to new ideas and raring to contribute my skills; I am young, pleasant and not tethered to parental responsibilities.

Throughout all this anguish and frustration, the one constant companion I’ve had in this dogged journey has been my mom.

Parents are the unsung heroes, the untallied casualties of youth unemployment. They pay the toll of financing the interminable internship stints, when they could be saving for their retirement. They bear your ache as though it were their own.

My single mother is spent for it. She’s plied me with self-help books to sharpen my focus, lent an ear to interview rehearsals, and nursed me out of a tailspin of tears: my personal cheerleader.

Etched on my face are lines of worry, but she smoothes them with her words of determination: “You will get the job that’s meant for you.” It’s a routine pep talk that somehow manages to lift my spirits.

And so, I soldier on – scouring the web for new postings, reminding friends and networks I’m available for employment, constantly upgrading my new technology skills, writing freelance, and imagining the coveted entry into adulthood and the elusive promises it holds for my much maligned, millennial generation.

I’ve had endless conversations with friends about the nagging uncertainty that makes insomniacs out of us. We set timelines to reflect the ever-changing expectations we have for our lives. We make plans to flee to other cities to test our chances elsewhere. We feel like privileged bums with a roof over our heads.

But subsisting on parental handouts does not make for hard-won independence.

It’s a tough slog psyching yourself up for the job-hunt ritual. But I’ve learnt to keep things in perspective and to find ways to occupy myself without totally bingeing on reruns of Boy Meets World and its life lessons.

My overextended “vacation” has given me time to further define what I’m invested in pursuing. But like those long summer vacations of university, you start pining for its end.

While I’ve chosen the “dying” profession of journalism, I still count myself fortunate that I’m able to find outlets to hone my craft. There’s a bewildering array of resources to keep me in shape. There’s no shortage of talent out there, either.

I can give into the naysayer who sees a flailing industry. But I’m still wired to believe in the laws of the universe, that if you send out your intentions, they will be heard. It’s what I fiercely cling to.

School may be out for me, but as my experience continues to teach me, my real world education has only just begun.

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