Voices in Education

On the Intersectional Amplification of Barriers to College Internships Participation
Marisol is a twenty-year-old first-generation Latina college student studying justice studies at an urban comprehensive university. She works thirty hours a week, helping her family not only financially but also with care for her two younger siblings. Her parents speak little English so she must accompany them to doctor visits and the like to translate. She has a passion for her schoolwork and wants to succeed in the classroom and pursue a career in a social justice organization. An internship has opened in such an organization; however, it is unpaid; Marisol desperately wants this opportunity, but with all her responsibilities she simply cannot take it.

Marisol is a composite narrative that resembles the experiences of many of the students in our study on barriers to college internships. We ask that you consider the complex and intersectional web of challenges Marisol and many of her fellow low-income, minority, and/or first-generation students face to succeed in college. We know much about their struggles in simply attending and graduating college (Green & Wright, 2017), but they also face significant challenges to participation in internships that help them succeed in their chosen careers. The literature on college internships shows that they are high impact practices that improve student learning and success outcomes (Kuh, 2008; Parker et al., 2016). Access to internships can be difficult even for students who have guidance from college-educated parents and other resources. However, picture the plight of students who are low income or economically marginalized, first-generation college students, students who are members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and students who may be unable to engage in unpaid labor and/or lack social networks that facilitate participation in internship programs.

The exploration of these students’ experiences reveals multiple social and contextual factors coordinate and compound to obstruct their success. Their stories tell of legal barriers such as immigration status, lack of time due to family obligations, difficulty with transportation, and socioeconomic marginalization. These factors intersect and amplify an already challenging situation that often curtail internship participation. When faced with other discriminatory and exclusionary circumstances while simultaneously being disadvantaged by class status leads to a multifactorial intractability for these students. These complex factors often combine, amplify, and impact individuals in particular situations into a “matrix of oppression” (Collins, 2002), that is informed by institutional and sociocultural contexts.

Simply making internships available does not guarantee that they will be accessible to all students or that the experience is guaranteed to have a strong and positive impact on student outcomes. Instead, much depends on how internships are structured by educators and employers, and experienced by students (Kuh & Kinzie, 2018; O’Neill, 2010).
In closing we ask the following:

How can minority serving institutions (MSIs) reduce barriers to internship participation that persist for many students?

How can MSIs better understand and advocate for their students’ needs with internship sponsors and employers?

If students cannot participate in internships, how can universities and their career centers maximize opportunities for students to acquire and practice career-relevant skills in their paying jobs?


Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge

Green, S. L. & Wright, C. F. (2017). Retaining first generation underrepresented minority students: A struggle for higher education. Journal of Education Research, 11(3), 323–38

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, G. D. & Kinzie, J. (2018, May 1). What really makes a ‘high-impact’ practice high impact? Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/05/01/kuh-and-kinzie-respond-essay- questioning-high-impact-practices-opinion

O’Neill, N. (2010). Internships as a high-impact practice: Some reflections on quality. Peer Review, 12(4), 4–8

Parker III, E. T., Kilgo, C. A., Sheets, J. K. E., & Pascarella, E. T. (2016). The differential effects of internship participation on end-of-fourth-year GPA by demographic and institutional characteristics. Journal of College Student Development, 57(1), 104–9

About the Author: Matthew Wolfgram is an anthropologist of education and an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin Center for Research on College Workforce Transitions (CCWT). Brian Vivona is associate professor of human resource development at Northeastern Illinois University and a research affiliate at the CCWT. Tamanna Akram is a recent graduate of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is a project assistant at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions.

Matthew Wolfgram, Brian Vivona, and Tamanna Akram are the authors of "On the Intersectional Amplification of Barriers to College Internships" in the Winter 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review