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Kyle Reini, a 20-year-old rising junior at Western Illinois University, may be trying to set a record for hardest-working summer vacation. He's in Washington, D.C., interning 34 hours a week for AAI Corp., a Pentagon aircraft supplier. As a participant in the Fund for American Studies, a Georgetown-affiliated internship program, he's also taking nine hours of classes. On top of that, he has six hours of independent study with his home university, and to afford it all, he puts in about 35 hours at a D.C. restaurant, working till dawn three days a week.
"I really don't sleep," says the tall blond. "That's how I'm affording to stay out here." Reini's father was disabled by a stroke just before Reini began his freshman year, leaving him to pay his own way. But that hasn't affected his ambitionhe still plans to get a graduate degree and go on to a high-profile business career. "You gotta be driven to do this," he says. "I'm worried about doing the best that I personally can."
Strivers like Reini are chasing an edge through internships. The Vault, a career website, reported that 82 percent of respondents to a 2005 survey had completed an internship during college, up from 60 percent 10 years ago. The Princeton Review's 2005 Internship Bible lists 100,000 placements.
Perhaps no city is more identified with interns, for better or worse, than Washington, D.C. There are 100 summer interns in the White House itself, plus five to 15 in each senator's office, and thousands more in the outer rings of government agencies, lobbying firms, nonprofits, and publications. They attend hearings, write reports, draft letters to senators, enter data, and fetch coffee, an unlimited supply of (mostly) unpaid entry-level labor. Spending a hot, muggy summer on the Hill is so prestigious that half a dozen programs charge for the privilege. The Fund for American Studies is typical; it sets up around 300 students with an internship and housing, plus six to nine credits in the evening, for $5,195 to $5,995 in tuition.
Reini and other TFAS participants agree that summer internships are necessary, but not sufficient, for the kinds of jobs they want. The résumé building is at least as important as the career education. Jessica Van Parys, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Georgia, on the state HOPE scholarship. She gave up a well-paid lifeguard job to work free for the D.C. city council. "It was a tough decision since I do need to save for grad school. But this is for the long-term good," she says. "I've done something 'meaningful' every summer since freshman year of high school." Van Parys has met a flood of kids just like her. "I thought the internships would be more selective. I'm overwhelmedthere are so many interns here every summer. How much is this really going to pay off? It causes some anxiety."
Stacy Gabriel, 22, who graduated this spring from the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse with $11,000 in student loans and is interning at a health care nonprofit, feels like she's already way behind. "I spent four years in college and I have no idea what I want to do. It's frustrating how many people have been planning their whole lives for so long. You have to do everything just to get your foot in the door."
With loans and cost of living on their minds, it's no wonder the students can sound a little mercenary. "The big draw was on the front page of The Washington Post: 'The Road to Riches Is Called K Street,' " says Kenny Olmstead, 21, an incoming senior at Skidmore who is interning for a sporting-goods manufacturers' association on issues involving trade with China. "That's encouraging. You get that valuable experience and it transfers over to becoming a lobbyist."
On the other hand, even with the long hours, the sometimes boring jobs, and the fierce competition, some D.C. interns still find the ideal idealistic experience. Take Mark Stilp, a 21-year-old Tulane senior interning at the environmentalist Alaska Wilderness League. "I worked 10 random jobs over the last seven summers and hated every single one of them," he says. "Now I really enjoy going to work. I was much more concerned about money before I came here. If I love what I do, the salary won't matter."
Olmstead agrees, confessing he's considering a run for office instead of a run down K Street. "I met Bill Frist last week," he says. "I'm getting the Washington bug. I didn't believe in it, but it's real."