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Lori Janjigian Headshot

The Perfect Summer Job: Why Waiting Tables Beats an Internship

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Every summer, college students leave their classrooms for gainful employment. Traditionally, they took jobs as painters, landscapers, waiters and cashiers. They would do almost anything to earn some money in order to help cover expenses when they returned to their institutions of higher learning in the fall.

These days, however, most students want a job that is more prestigious. In particular, they want a so-called summer internship. An internship is supposed to be a job at a big corporation with a well-recognized name. It is supposed to give the student meaningful experience in his or her field of study. It is also supposed to help them dress up their resume for the real job hunt that begins during their senior year.

I am in my sophomore year, yet I have already felt the tremendous pressure to secure that "perfect" internship. In fact, it seems that internships are all we students talk about these days. We discuss them with each other, with our professors, with our advisers and with our parents.

It seems that students who manage to secure that perfect summer internship earn the right to feel so much better about themselves. They hold their heads a bit higher while the rest of us feel like failures. Those of us who take jobs as camp counselors or food service workers think that we must have done something wrong, even coming up with excuses to explain their choice of summer employment. "You know, I'm just not ready to grow up yet!" Or, "Hey, my uncle owns a restaurant and really needs my help this summer."

I fell victim to the pressure last summer. I signed up for what was supposed to be a great internship. Unfortunately for me, it was an unpaid internship. I spent $100 per week just for my train fare. I spent another $25 per week for lunch. I took two other jobs to help finance this internship. During the weekend, I waited tables at a restaurant and at night I did freelance reporting for my local newspaper. I suffered 10 weeks of continuous stress, got way too little sleep, and by the end of the summer, had too little money to show for my efforts. Of course, I had no one to blame but myself. I allowed myself to fall into the trap of thinking that an internship was much too important to turn down -- even if it cost me money and taught me very little.

Recently, I came across an interesting note written by Jason Trennert, Chief Investment Strategist at Strategas Research Partners, an investment research firm. Mr. Trennert writes, "I have noticed a trend among college-aged kids that has led me to believe that the abandonment of the summer job -- waiting tables, caddying, etc. -- in favor of "status" internship is doing more harm than good for both the students and the future employers alike." He continues, "(T)he need for today's kids to have a fancy pants work experience is depriving them of other real world experiences that would allow them to appreciate the gift of their education, manage their expectations about their careers, and, ultimately, be happier and more productive full-time employees after graduation."

I couldn't agree more. I learned much more last summer from my two "secondary" jobs than I did from my "primary" internship. Waiting tables taught me how to deal with difficult customers. I learned that the customer is always right, even when he is wrong. It also gave me a much greater appreciation for the people who do this kind of work on a full-time basis year in and year out. I'll never take a waiter for granted again. And writing articles for the local paper forced me to meet and interview total strangers -- many of whom were incredibly interesting. Chances are, I never would have met these people otherwise. I learned so much about their lives -- the good as well as the bad. The experience also made me realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to go to college.

So what I am doing this year now that summer is approaching? Well, I will be working at the same restaurant again; and I hope to continue writing articles for the local paper if they'll let me. Oh yes, just like every other student, I will also be looking for that perfect summer internship. However, one thing's for sure. I won't be taking any more positions that provide little meaningful experience in exchange for no pay. My days of indentured servitude are over!