Dropouts from Co-op internships speak out

Concordia students share their experiences with the Co-op program

When Emma Amar was accepted into Concordia University’s software engineering program in April 2020, she was invited to apply to the Co-op program during an orientation session. She hoped to get experience in the field before graduating, alongside an accreditation to her diploma. 

But in January 2022, she called it quits.

“I decided to leave Co-op because I couldn’t stay and take a leave of absence,” she said. In 2020, the Co-op institute required software engineering students to take five classes for their fall, winter and summer semesters. Currently, their sequence requires fewer courses over an academic year.

“If you step out of sequence, then your Co-op gets messed up. So it’s very rigorous every semester. So most of my peers take five [classes] every semester.”

In order to complete the Co-op program, students must dedicate two semesters to learn about the Co-op program and to secure an internship via their institute. Then, they must successfully complete three internships, spread over three semesters.

“I was very excited to work because I’m not a person that enjoys [studying],” she said. “I have anxiety and have a lot of things that make it very difficult for me to be a student and a participant in a class setting.”

Amar’s internship workload felt like she was taking an extra class. “I have to attend all these workshops. I have to be a member of the Co-op institute, but I’m busy juggling five classes,” she said.

Juggling between being a full-time student one semester and working full-time the next, all while dealing with mental health issues made Amar realize she needed a break.

Despite the added stress she encountered with the process, she says she improved her technical skills through the experience. “Two years past that internship, I’m still using all the skills that I got from my job in my classes, in my group projects,” she said. “I’m able to sit down and actually be able to interact with my peers and actually be able to contribute.”

Alex*, who wished to remain anonymous, is another student whose Co-op experience was similar to Amar’s. They decided to apply for Co-op in March 2021; as a journalism student, they were eager to find internship opportunities in their field, but quickly realized that the program only offered opportunities to work in public relations and communications. 

“Sometimes I would have to go to a press conference. Well, I guess you do that in journalism, but this was not me asking questions. This was me networking for the company,” they said.

Alex thought their internship would teach them journalism skills, like following tight schedules, writing and publishing content. Yet they felt like their days were coordinated by random tasks their manager gave them.

Alex expressed feeling burnt out after that summer, having worked 50 hours every week,  including their summer job. 

“The university could do so much more to set us up for success with internships, and yet they don’t,” they said. “I sincerely hope that Concordia, the journalism department and the Co-op department figure out a way to have paid journalism jobs. Right now, it’s all communications, marketing or PR. And to me, that’s completely useless and irrelevant to my field of study,” Alex added.

“I still feel like I’ve never really recovered from that. It made me realize I want to do journalism,” they said. “The thing about Co-op is that you can’t quit halfway through because it looks like you failed on your transcript,” Alex said. “[I] was realizing that the Co-op program in journalism is kind of a scam.” 

After completing their first internship in summer 2022, Alex told their program coordinator they were no longer interested in being part of the Co-op program. 

Amar and Alex will not graduate as Co-op students, but as C.Edge students. 

C.Edge is another internship institute at Concordia for students who are transitioning to the workfield. Only one internship is required to complete the C.Edge program.

“It’s not going to show that I’m a Co-op student, but because I did successfully complete one internship, I’m a C.Edge student,” Amar said. “I have no idea what that entails.”

*a fictive name


It’s time to reject unpaid internships once and for all

Unpaid internships exacerbate the rampant inequalities in our labour market

National Football League (NFL) reporter Jane Slater sparked the ire of young journalists all over the Twittersphere earlier this month when she promoted an unpaid internship position. After receiving an avalanche of responses on how unpaid internships are unethical, unsustainable, and exploitative, she responded that this was simply the norm and that, “There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business.” She continued, “I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”

While Slater’s unwavering commitment to the practice of unpaid internships is baffling, she wasn’t exactly incorrect that they are omnipresent in media and journalism fields.

Although no career field could ever be a true meritocracy, unpaid internships are pushing us further and further from that ideal. This is because to even be able to work unpaid, you must start out with a base level of economic security and privilege.

A student who needs to pay their own way through university or support dependents would simply not be able to allocate their time and labour to a company not willing to pay them. This leads to a culture where the only people applying for these entry-level internships are those who already have a financial leg up.

Additionally, working for free can put interns in precarious situations. Despite the fact that, as of 2019, all interns in federally regulated industries, including unpaid student positions, received standard worker protections, there are still many interns across Canada left without proper protections. This ruling did not account for federal civil service jobs or positions under provincial jurisdiction. Thus, the burden of adequately caring for their unpaid interns is placed on the employer, who often has little incentive to provide anything above the bare minimum needed to not get sued.

Not to mention, the mere concept of unpaid internships perpetuates the notion that one’s labour can be removed from their pay. The more a young person gets used to not being paid for their work, the less they’ll value their labour as they move into positions later down the line, which may lead to them not properly advocating for themselves.

Full disclosure, I have worked an unpaid internship. I am privileged enough that working for pay part-time over a summer and interning the rest was enough to sustain me. Looking back, I hate myself for offering my labour to such an unethical system, but at the same time, it’s what I was told was common, if not necessary, to have a career in media.

Yet, I now believe that no internship, no matter the prestige, would be worth selling out my labour for free. I can no longer in good conscience prop up any company not willing to pay their workers a living wage, because when privileged people feed into these systems, they’ll continue functioning regardless of backlash. There are so many resources such as Concordia’s Housing and Job Resource Centre (HOJO) or Career and Planning Services (CAPS), that make it easier to find paid opportunities and avoid falling victim to the unpaid internship scam.

If we all as students reject the concept of unpaid internships wholeheartedly, the industry will eventually be forced to follow suit.


 Graphic by Alex Hutchins


Editorial: Remember, unpaid is unfair

Picture this: you’re scrolling down Indeed, aimlessly searching for a job that fits your criteria—or more accurately, a job where you meet the criteria. Your eyes land on something that almost sounds too good to be true.

Eagerly, you click on the posting and, with hope, cross your fingers. You’re gleeful as you read the responsibilities and requirements—they’re all things you can actually do. Suddenly, you read the last line of the post: “This is an unpaid internship, but we reward our interns with exposure and experience!” As if exposure and experience can put food on the table, pay the rent, or a massive amount of bills.

On Jan. 16, the Journalism Student Association (JSA) voted in favour of going on a week-long strike against unpaid internships. Some of the goals of this protest, outlined by the JSA, are to pressure the Quebec government to include interns in its Labour Code, and to send a message to Concordia that they are opposed to mandatory, unpaid internships, specifically, the journalism course JOUR 450.

Of course, striking and protesting against unpaid internships isn’t a radical idea. In November 2018, more than 50,000 Quebec students went on strike against unpaid internships, according to CBC News. The protest highlighted how Quebec’s labour laws don’t protect student interns, who are often exploited and left without remuneration. Those of us who are familiar with unpaid internships are well aware of the many downsides that come with embarking on one. But it seems that there are a lot of students out there who don’t really know about unpaid internships—or more importantly, why they suck.

When news broke of the JSA voting in favour of the strike, many anonymous students took to the Spotted: Concordia Facebook page to vent about how much they disagree with the strike. Specifically, one post mentioned that the university can’t do much about journalism students’ unpaid internships, and that they don’t decide if unpaid internships exist or not. Well, we hate to break it to you, anonymous Spotter, but Concordia actually does have a say in unpaid internships. In the journalism department, students can’t get paid if they’re earning credit for their internship (see JOUR 450 above). This university policy is a hassle to deal with, and leaves students feeling trapped between two daunting choices: exert all of your energy and produce the best work possible without pay, or choose an unrelated job that pays but forever be left behind in the competitive race to the top.

We also need to stress that unpaid internships in general affect a lot of different people, in a lot of different ways. In fields like mechanical and industrial engineering, internships are paid—but 79.3 per cent of students in that field at Concordia are men, according to a poster published by the CSU about unpaid internships across various departments. The same can be said about finance, where 70.12 per cent of students are men, yet that field holds paid internship opportunities. Meanwhile, fields like art education, where 90.0 per cent of students are women, and applied human sciences, where 78.29 per cent of students are women, offer mostly unpaid internships. And it’s noteworthy to remember that women that work full-time still earn 74.2 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to Maclean’s.

Unpaid internships also affect those who are already struggling financially. People with physical and mental disabilities are twice as likely to live below the poverty line in Canada, and nearly 15 per cent of people with disabilities live in poverty, according to the non-profit organization Canada Without Poverty. One in five racialized families live in poverty in Canada, whereas one in 20 non-racialized families live in poverty. According to the same source, racialized women earn 32 per cent less at work.

These same people, representing these facts and figures, are trying their best as students at Concordia. Not only are they studying hard, they’re also trying to find an opportunity outside of their schooling that lets them add something to their resume. At the same time, they’re juggling numerous responsibilities; some might have children, others might need to pay rent. The last thing they need is an unpaid internship. So, to all of you anonymous Spotted users: try to ditch the misplaced anger, and instead, read up about unpaid internships. Oh, and maybe invest in some sympathy—it seems like you can afford it.

Graphic by @spooky_soda

Student Life

Slice of Life: Overexpectations

What happened to stopping to smell the roses?

Higher education is a privilege not everyone has access to, and we’re all extremely fortunate for the learning opportunities at Concordia, but crap is it ever tiring. After three full years spent in Montreal either working my butt off at school, or working my butt off to pay for school, I’m just about done (realistically I still have a year or so left, though—whoop-dee-doo). But it’s not the prospect of hard work that leaves me feeling discouraged; it’s the feeling that I’m not doing enough. The feeling that being in school full-time, working for The Concordian part-time (read: full-time), and trying to pick up whatever photography gigs I can still isn’t enough.

Just the other week, I was talking with my roommate about how I want to spend this summer. Working outdoors is something I fell in love with in 2015, before moving to Montreal, when I worked as a canoe trip counselor in Algonquin Park, a provincial park in southeastern Ontario. Getting outside and into nature is something I’ve been itching to do every summer since then, for my own sanity. Yet, when having this conversation with my roommate, I found myself bringing up my degree, the benefit of staying in Montreal for another summer to take extra classes, maybe pick up an internship; all to get ahead. But of what? Of who?

I’m not sure what makes me more upset: the fact that I have this competitive desire to finish my degree quickly and move on, or the fact that I’m probably going to end up taking classes and whatever internship I think will boost my CV the most. There was one semester, one blissful (yes, blissful) few months in fall 2017, when I thoroughly enjoyed all of my classes. Not only that, but I was proud of the work I was accomplishing, both in and outside the lecture hall. But toward the end of post-secondary education, professors start encouraging students to envision how their degrees fit into their career paths. While this isn’t inherently negative, the insane pressure many of us feel to find that career path early on and pursue every available opportunity within that field, to differentiate ourselves and come out on top is kind of negative (cheers, capitalism), no?

What happened to stopping and smelling the roses? Enjoying the journey, and not the destination? I’ve had one-too-many conversations with students already working full-time in their final years of university who only show up to classes on mandatory attendance days or to hand in assignments because they’re simply done with school. Or students who are in school full-time, pursuing a full-time internship, and also trying to work part-time who have absolutely no time for themselves.

The constant pressure to go above and beyond comes from the overexpectations we all feel, and it really friggin’ sucks. It translates to us constantly focusing on the next stage of our lives, as opposed to drawing value from our current place in life and really growing as individuals.

Feature graphic by @spooky_soda


Drowning in distress and trying to stay afloat

One student’s contemplation on juggling school, work and the possibility of unpaid internships

Picture it: you’re sitting in class, minding your business, waiting for your professor to walk in and begin the lesson. Maybe you’re scrolling through Instagram, maybe you’re cramming for your test. And all the while, you hear your fellow classmates discuss their internships. You panic, mid-scroll, realizing you will eventually have to take on an internship as well in order to graduate.

This is almost the exact reaction I had. As students, our main goal after we get our degree is to find a job. But sometimes, before that, we have to get an internship. In my journalism program, we have had multiple guest lecturers—both current and past students—discuss their experience in the program, and inevitably they mention their internships. These internships, like most, were unpaid. Despite their enthusiastic discussion of internships, I noticed none of these guest lecturers mentioned handling a part-time job as well.

I’ve had the same part-time job for five years now, and it has been grand. I’ve gotten a few raises over the years and, despite some bad days, I like my job. At the end of the day, it keeps me afloat. It allows me to pay my bills, put food in my stomach and, sometimes, treat myself to a night out with friends or new clothes. But I can’t imagine having to give up my part-time job in order to take on an unpaid internship. It would make it hard to afford anything at all.

How am I supposed to deal with going to school during the day, commuting home to do homework, then attending my part-time job for more than eight hours several times a week? For my own mental health, I’d also like to somehow manage a social life amidst all this. And then, on top of all that, I have to take on an internship that is unpaid, likely working the same number of hours as a full-time paid employee. Where am I supposed to squeeze that into my packed schedule?

Listen, I understand that it’s part of student life. And I, for one, am well aware of my privilege and how easy I have it. I still live at home with my mom. I have a car. I work a part-time job that’s close to home. I know there are lots of other students who have it a lot harder; those who work full-time jobs to pay for school and rent and food and sometimes even the needs of their relatives or children.

But that’s precisely my point. How am I, or anyone else who encounters the hurdles of student life, supposed to deal with the additional burden of an unpaid internship that takes up our time and effort without compensation?

I’m all for internships. The idea that I could work hands-on in my desired field and get a real-life, real-time work experience sounds awesome. It could be fun, exciting and even lead to a real job. But my concern is how time and money fit into all of this; two things that make the world go round. The two things that keep us afloat in life.

Graphic by @spooky_soda



Working toward paid internships for students

Concordia student associations gather to discuss the future of internships at the university

Huddled around a rectangular table in the Hive Café downtown, executives from various Concordia student associations discussed the future of internships at the university on Jan. 16. The congress, organized by the Concordia Student Union (CSU), followed through on the union’s campaign promise to end unpaid internships. Although it was geared toward student executives, the congress was open to the public.

The representatives of each association took turns discussing how internships work in their respective programs and how they could be improved. Asma Mushtaq, the CSU’s academic and advocacy coordinator, explained that while internships “might appear more manageable on paper,” they do not properly capture the “real student experience.”

This so-called “real student experience” varies greatly from program to program. According to Mushtaq, during the preliminary awareness campaign regarding unpaid internships, many students were shocked to learn that unpaid internships are required for graduation in some departments, despite other students getting paid up to $20 an hour for internships. “We’re trying to bring more consistency,” Mushtaq said.

Many students have reported that Concordia’s early childhood and elementary education program is notoriously demanding in its internship requirements. Sydney Daoust-Filiatrault, the vice-president of the newly created Early Childhood and Elementary Education Student Association (ECEESA), explained that to graduate from the program, students must complete five unpaid internships over four years.

Toward the end of their degree, students are expected to complete three internships, working 25 hours per week for eight weeks. These internships only count for three credits, and students are also obliged to attend a weekly three-credit seminar. This means that, to be considered full-time, students must take at least six other credits of classwork. Students must also receive at least a B grade to pass their internships, and if the same internship is failed twice, the student will be asked to withdraw from the program.

For Daoust-Filiatrault, this demanding schedule does not take into consideration students who work or have other time commitments. She explained that, on top of 25 hours of weekly work, students must also prepare lesson plans for their internships and do work outside of the classroom. Daoust-Filiatrault added that, while many teachers and administration recommend students study part-time during their internships, this can extend their studies far past four years.

Although it is possible to ask for permission to appear as a full-time student to Concordia while only taking six credits per semester during the internship period, “that doesn’t change how the government sees you,” she said. “So anyone with bursaries loses them, despite working full-time, despite not being able to make money while you’re full-time.”

According to Daoust-Filiatrault, this unfairly targets students who need a job to afford their education. “At this point, I feel like we’re losing everything by doing [internships],” she said.

The CSU campaign for paid internships is still in its early stages. According to Mushtaq, the student union is in the process of collecting preliminary data and statistics to present to the university and senate. Collecting this raw data and information about the variety of internship experiences from students is an essential first step to approaching the university, she explained. “Having something concrete from the ground level helps us create a more concrete action plan,” Mushtaq said.

Photo by Alex Hutchins

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