THE BLOG
01/13/2015 05:23 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2015

Why an Unpaid Internship Was Worth 4,000 Miles and $3,000

You know those Hollywood types who fall into acting because of timing and luck? That's kind of how I got into journalism. I had never considered it as a kid -- I'd always worked on the school paper, and thought it would be cool to see my name in print, but had always considered myself a creative writer first. I applied to write for Her Campus Johns Hopkins, but because Her Campus National was looking for a JHU Campus Correspondent, I found myself building a chapter of the publication as a freshman. When it was time to apply for summer internships, I sent out 31 applications, but was at a disadvantage because I was an incoming sophomore, and most publications prefer to hire juniors or seniors.

Just when I thought I'd be tutoring SAT/ACT at my local library, I got an email from the copy chief of Sports Illustrated. He was impressed by my resume, and called me for an interview, where he hired me on the spot. At Sports Illustrated, I worked in the Copy department, so I was observing conferences, helping the copyeditors with filing, and learning how to copyedit. I spent my summer cross-referencing the Merrium-Webster's 11th Edition with the Sports Illustrated Style Book, double-checking that the en dashes and em dashes were in the right places, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. Looking back, I realize how wonderful that internship was -- SI treated me like a member of the team, which is something very few interns can say.

At the end of the summer, I dreaded going back to Baltimore, simply because it wasn't New York, which has an intoxicating quality when you're young and ambitious. I didn't want to stop working -- so I found myself applying for fall internships and going on interviews during my lunch breaks at SI. I landed a gig at Elle, which I couldn't turn down. To make it work, I changed my entire JHU schedule to fit a full course load on Monday and Tuesday, so I could get on an Amtrak to New York Wednesday morning and work Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 10 am to 6 pm. My dad doesn't believe in internships (he thinks companies take advantage of interns), but my mother was supportive because she's always encouraged me to pursue unique experience.

The Elle internship was more traditional, despite my nontraditional approach to it -- interview transcriptions, archival work, research for spreads, and yes, coffee runs and errands. It was a reality check, especially coming off the SI internship. The office was a totally different environment and the learning curve was steeper. I had less access to editors, less room for error, and more pressure. When my friends found out what I was commuting for, the responses were mixed; my favorite was, "That is both really fantastic and completely insane," which it was. I was exhausted all the time, and slept on the train because I was doing my schoolwork in the middle of the night. I broke seven years of vegetarianism because I needed more protein, got hooked on caffeine, and caught walking pneumonia five weeks in. But I was also surrounded by people working in the pop journalism industry -- there was talk in the cafeteria sushi line about the Rihanna cover and the Lorde interview. I got to observe a tabletop photo shoot, and learned how to style my collegiate wardrobe so it looked on-trend.

My life became a bizarre dichotomy of academia and pop culture -- even though my homework focused on Frank O'Hara's poetry and Hans Holbein's paintings, I learned that Eva Chen (a Hopkins alum) and Lucky had spun off from Conde Nast, Joanna Coles was named Editorial Director of Seventeen, and Karl Lagerfeld designed for both Chanel and Fendi. Back at school, my priorities changed -- I dropped out of clubs I'd loved freshman year, lost touch with acquaintances, and spent less time on schoolwork.

After 10 weeks, my Sports Illustrated money started to run out, and I needed to end the Elle internship because it was getting too expensive. Over those 10 weeks, I travelled 4,000 miles and spent $3,000 on an unpaid internship. I also discovered that the magazine industry is thrilling, but I'm still more passionate about the arts.

Before I started commuting between Baltimore and New York, my uncle told me not to do it. "You'll miss out on the college thing. Go have fun."

"This is my idea of fun," I said. It was fun to step out of my comfort zone, because uncharted territory is exciting (and learning to walk in heels is an important life skill). It was fun to prove to myself how far I will go -- 4,000 miles, apparently -- to make it in a competitive industry. Suddenly, everything from creative writing to screenwriting to film production seemed within my reach. It was empowering to do something ridiculous.

The other day, a friend of mine, a Hopkins pre-med interested in switching to magazine journalism, asked if I'd recommend doing an internship. She said it was impossible to fit it into her pre-med track, but she'd hate herself if she didn't give media a try.

"I'd say do it, even if it seems impossible," I told her, "You might surprise yourself."