10/01/2012 07:29 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2012

Her Story: My 'Paid' Internship Failed to Pay Me

On a scale of getting your teeth pulled sans anesthesia to retreating to bed after a long day on your feet, the dreaded internship hunt ranks somewhere around running a marathon with no training -- a slow, arduous, near-impossible process that never ends. It seems that aspiring interns -- paid or unpaid -- have to do everything short of selling their limbs to get an employer to even open their desperate email cover letters.

After a frustratingly unfulfilling summer of making good money nannying not-so-good children post-freshman year, I decided I would do everything possible to secure a legitimate internship in my Georgian hometown for the following summer. But the only thing worse than applying for internships is applying for internships with absolutely zero connections. In between schoolwork, extracurriculars, and social activities, I spent every waking moment scouring general internship websites, desperately Googling "Atlanta writing jobs," and stalking the University of Pennsylvania's career site for any possible intern listings in Georgia (unfortunately, 98 percent of opportunities are in New York, Pennsylvania, or California -- all places that would be impossible for me to live in right now with an unpaid or poorly paid internship.) In the end, I applied for around two dozen internships. My Desktop folder, "Summer 2012 Internships," was overflowing with carefully crafted resumes, cover letters, and writing samples.

After three months of steadily sending in applications, I only heard back from about five organizations (including rejections), an average which, as I was assured by one of Penn's career counselors, was apparently quite normal and respectable. After undergoing a series of phone interviews, I finally accepted the holy grail of summer internships: one part-time that was paid, one part-time that would be paid in connections. Moreover, as a lover of writing and an advocate of education -- two fields that infrequently offer lucrative opportunities for college students -- I was thrilled that the paid offer was from an education non-profit that worked directly with Atlanta's ailing public school system.

I walked in to my first day of the internship's orientation, feeling excited, nervous, and awkward in my business casual outfit. But these feelings were quickly replaced by hesitancy when I found myself walking into a room where 29 other college students were staring back at me. Immediately, a warning bell went off inside my head: how could an education non-profit afford to pay for 30 interns, especially with a full-time staff that is less than half this size? But, after eight days of learning, team-building, and eating free food, the red flags waving in my head surrendered to white ones, as I accepted that somehow, some way this non-profit was able to support all of us.

Our first payday came two weeks after we began the internship. As planned, we each received a stipend check, paying us for our part-time work over the last half-month. Shortly after I finished work, however, my phone began blinking with incoming texts from our internship group: "Did your check bounce?" "What is going on?" "My bank said there were insufficient funds in their account!" But any and all qualms were momentarily silenced when we received an email from our boss, explaining that there was a banking error, and new checks would be distributed the following day. Rather than new checks, though, interns whose checks had bounced received a wad of cold, hard cash at work.

I pride myself on having a head screwed soundly on my shoulders and a strong gut instinct. I fully realize that it sounds like I should have bolted and ran at this point. And believe me, I knew something was off. After work, I spent several hours researching the company, reviewing old IRS tax forms, and looking into non-profit contractual agreements. But I still ended up showing up for work, ready to make a difference, the next day, and the next, and the day after that. At this point, I had been paid and assured that a payment delay would not happen again. Even more importantly, I felt confident that I was doing something meaningful, and I was a part of an important organization with a significant cause.

Very few people realize that the state of education is in dire straits, particularly education for minority groups and public school education in the South. In America, 40 percent of students of color fail to graduate from high school, and the city of Atlanta, a metropolis of the south that is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies, only has a graduation rate of 52 percent. So though something seemed off with the non-profit, my fellow interns and I had a mutual desire to do something good for the students in Atlanta Public Schools -- and so, we continued to work.

Two weeks later, on our next payday, the interns arrived at a local high school, ready to tutor struggling students at 7:30 in the morning. After working a full day, we received a message from our intern coordinator that we had to report back to the non-profit's office in downtown Atlanta for a meeting with the COO and CEO. After driving through Atlanta traffic and paying for parking, the interns were greeted by grim faces instead of green slips of paper. We sat down to hear what surprisingly none of us saw coming: the non-profit no longer had the funds to pay for us, and we were all being let go from the company. They could not compensate us for the past two weeks just yet, but they were hopeful we would be paid by the end of the week. Did we have any questions?

The question was met by silence and disbelief. Several interns, who were fully independent and responsible for paying their rent and bills, buying their own food, and even supporting their own children and families, began crying. Finally, one intern spoke out: "How could you hire all of us without having the money?" And the gruesome reality of working in a non-profit hit: an enormous grant that the organization had been counting on had still not come through, and the interns were one of the many cuts that the company had to make.

Soon after, there was a backlash against the non-profit from the interns, including harsh rumors that the CEO thought we were unpaid interns, that the non-profit was in over $10,000 of debt, that the organization knew from the start that they would only keep us on a month. And while these may or may not be true, the reality remains that the non-profit spent an enormous amount of time and money sifting through intern applications, funding our orientation, and ultimately trying to help students in the Atlanta Public School system. The interns just so happened to be caught in their financial landslide, an occurrence that is, unfortunately, much more common than I--and I'm sure other aspiring game changers -- would like to think. A feasibility study from 2009, conducted by the Community Foundation, a non-profit, public charity, revealed that 50 percent of non-profit organizations had a budget shortfall -- 82 percent of which were due to money that was supposed to come in, but didn't. Contract delays are a frequent reality, especially when working with government organizations and public schools.

As much as I believed in the mission of the non-profit, I found it difficult to return to work as a volunteer after the deceit and manipulation. Why hire interns with money that was not there? Why take a business gamble on college students' lives, particularly when the organization existed to assist local students? I had turned down other internship interviews and opportunities for this, and, as much as I called and emailed after my dismissal, I could not take those missed chances back.

But now, after a month with way too much free time and still no overdue paycheck in sight, I do not regret my time at the non-profit -- although I do regret not listening to my instinct earlier and researching the company further. Ultimately, I did something important this summer -- and just so happened to learn an unfortunate lesson about the real world along the way.