Advocating for Increased Diversity and Representation in Internship Programs


As college students end their semesters, some will enter summer 2021 internships at the country’s most prestigious companies. These internships will offer students the training and connections essential to become the leaders of tomorrow. But research shows that these internships — specifically, paid internship opportunities — are often filled by white students over interns of color and LGBTQ+ communities. 

A recent study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that students of color are less likely to receive paid internships than their white peers. The report’s authors observed 3,952 seniors who graduated in spring of 2019, and found that although Black and Latino students made up 16.6% of the class, they held only 15.9% of paid internships and 17.5% of unpaid internships allocated. Paid internships are a key path to job offers, putting Black and Latino students at a disadvantage when they are underrepresented in the roles.  

Business leaders like Robert F. Smith are working to provide innovative opportunities that prioritize equity and inclusion, investing in interns of color to build a more diverse future for corporate America. 

Paid internships allow students to gain critical experience and knowledge, while being compensated for their work and time. Unpaid internships are also an option for many students, but advocates argue that unpaid internships can widen existing disparities. “Unpaid opportunities essentially block a subset of students from applying and weaken their starting salary outcomes after graduation,” noted Trevor Smith, the outreach director for Pay Our interns. Students of color are also more likely to take on higher student loan debt than their white classmates, according to research from the Brookings Institute, and when students face unpaid internships, they may be forced to take on additional loans. 

Business Leaders Creating Opportunities for Interns

Corporate, philanthropic and nonprofit partners have launched programs to bridge this gap by creating paid, prestigious internships focused on students of color. InternX is an initiative that matches leading STEM employers with diverse internship candidates, providing both employers and students with high-quality experiences. The initiative provides paid internship experiences, networking opportunities with senior executives and actionable skills for future employment to talented students across the country. The program was created by the Fund II Foundation, of which Smith is the founding director and President. 

Smith is personally familiar with the importance of impactful, paid internships. As a high-school student, he called the human resources director for a prestigious Bell Labs facility repeatedly until she relented and offered him an open internship spot usually reserved for students who had completed their junior year of college. Smith has remarked that the internship experience at Bell Labs set him up for a future degree and career in engineering through pushing his critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders Needs Everyone’s Support

Outside of internX, Smith was the top individual donor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The Museum created the Robert F. Smith Internship Program, a paid opportunity to cultivate the next generation of researchers, scholars, curators and other museum, library, preservation and heritage professionals. Smith also works with the Robert F. Smith Applied Public History Fellowship for HBCU Graduates, which provides a two-year appointment to one HBCU graduate pursuing a career in public history, museum management, outreach, or partnership building.

In addition, Vista Equity Partners, which Smith founded and serves as Chairman and CEO, recently announced its new Vista Frontier Fellows Program. The program provides undergraduate students from backgrounds that are not usually represented in private equity with full-time, paid internship opportunities to prepare them for a career in finance. In addition, each student receives a $25,000 scholarship toward student loans or expenses at the end of the program, which takes place before their final year of studies. Frontier Fellows are also encouraged to apply for full-time employment at Vista Equity Partners following completion of their degree. 

With continued support from philanthropic, corporate and nonprofit partners, we can make significant headway in combating disparities in access to paid internships, and help ensure that everyone has the opportunities they need to be successful.

Find out more about efforts to further equity in internship programs