Recently Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., posted "possibly the least-diverse selfie ever," according to U.S. News and World Report. Ryan came under fire for a photograph he posted of himself with a large group of Capitol Hill interns, all of whom — to judge by the photograph — are white. Snarky comments were quick to follow. Some Twitter users invoked comparisons to Wonder Bread, while others observed that the hundreds of interns are all so startlingly white that the photo can only be viewed safely with sunglasses.
But the lack of diversity in internship programs, like the lack of diversity in any number of American workplaces, is no laughing matter. And the problem echoes well beyond the halls of Congress.
As faculty at UW-Madison teaching a course that runs in tandem with actual internships held by our students in the real world, we know all too well that internships, by and large, remain a segregated experience. We have observed this problem up close. Until only very recently, the students taking the class were some of the most privileged students at our large public university — able to take on unpaid work during both the academic year and summer. They were almost exclusively white.
The students in this course do inspiring work, often putting in long hours for little or no pay while interning as everything from arson investigators to zookeepers. They travel to Alaska to work with American Indian tribes on public health initiatives, or they stay in Wisconsin to train as entrepreneurs who may one day begin their own start-ups in downtown Madison or elsewhere in the state. Along the way, our internship course gives students the opportunity to reflect thoughtfully upon and write about their experiences as interns, all in the hope of giving each a running start when it comes to pursuing a career path.
But not everyone has access this opportunity. Ryan's photo is proof of the fact that when it comes to internships, it’s frequently a pay-to-play scenario that favors those who already enjoy considerable advantages. We have set out to help change this by working with partners across UW-Madison to secure grant money that helps support low-income and minority students who would otherwise not have the luxury of taking an unpaid internship for a summer.
In the same week that Ryan posted his photo, we coincidentally had asked our students to respond to a selection of readings that emphasized issues of gender and racial diversity in their summer workplace. Their answers were telling, and often poignant. While virtually all our students expressed excitement about and gratitude for their internships, they are also clearly attuned to the inequalities, large and small, that cast a shadow upon their experiences. Many, despite our program’s support, commented on the difficulty of holding down a summer job on top of the unpaid internship they otherwise could not afford.
We plan to keep working on expanding the diversity of our classroom, but so too do we hope that internship programs in Wisconsin and around the country will use the furor over Paul Ryan’s photo as an opportunity to think about how they can make their internships more widely available, affordable, and accessible for the many diverse students eager for the chance.
Russ Castronovo is professor of English, and Lisa Cooper is associate Professor of English, at UW-Madison.
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