The woes of an unpaid, pencil-sharpening intern

I rolled the pencils along the desk, twisting them one by one as I sharpened their heads into points. The room was dimly lit, as I was in the basement, and the only sunlight filtered through small windows near the ceiling. The background noise was a constant buzz from the sewing machines next door. I didn’t much like being in this basement. I especially didn’t like eating lunch down here. I’d sit opposite the glorified shop assistant as she pushed cherry tomatoes around her plate. It was a nice break when I was asked to run an errand, which I would have to do by foot because I had no money and no wage. I got to know Kensington, Mayfair and Chelsea by walking from one street to the next.

I would be sent to fetch dry cleaning, envelopes and breakfast. I’d walk slowly through Chelsea, peering into the windows of Chanel. I entered the black and white tiled cafe, with wooden surfaces and French staff. I’d been instructed to get a fruit salad and orange juice – it cost £8.00 in total. This was just under my travel cost that apparently the designer I was “interning” for couldn’t afford. Overpriced fruit salad, however, was not a problem.

For the envelopes I mentioned earlier, I had to travel twice to this bespoke stationary shop in Mayfair, as they weren’t quite right. I would have to buy flowers from Waitrose, as fresh flowers were required weekly. Honestly, flowers did not brighten that basement, no matter how fresh they were. Another day I was asked to go to Harrods to purchase a candle three times the cost of my travel. I quit after a week.

I had been warned that internships were dogsbody work, but this wasn’t my first internship. I had gone from the Disneyland of internships to having to sneak into Prada to take pictures, because the designer wanted to copy the interior. This might not sound too bad, but when your valuable skills don’t reach past your ability to use your hands, it’s demoralising. My understanding was that internships are an exchange of free labour for knowledge. I was willing to work and travel for free on the condition I would learn. I already knew how to sharpen a pencil.

By the time I graduated university, I had undertaken eight internships. After I graduated, I did two more. That’s a total of 10 unpaid positions. University had made me believe this is what I had to do to get a job, and because I’m career-obsessed, I took it to the extreme. I thought I had a step up, but the truth is I wasn’t even near the ladder.

I’ve since learnt that the most valuable assets I needed to secure a job were confidence and self-belief – demoralising work can chip away at that. Sure, internships can be a great way to learn and expand your horizons, but occasionally they can have no value. I’ve had my fair share of bad experiences with promised opportunities, but I always walked away in the end because, no matter how big the dream is, it’s not worth losing yourself to it. The one thing I can take away from that basement is that my potential surpasses pencil sharpening.

Words: Emily Hoyle

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