Penny Fellowships: Supporting the Success of our Students

written by | Christina DeVries


Last week, at the end of the Minnesota Legislative session, the Higher Education budget was the only one to to make it out before the special session. Minnesota State was awarded $1.45 billion to support the college and university system. NPR reported that about $8 million will go towards workforce development scholarships and workforce partnerships. While this is a small slice of the overall allocation, it does signal the system wide interest to invest in students heading towards the workforce. 

This workforce development investment will likely be geared towards a piece of the college experience many students are likely familiar with-internships . For undergraduate college students, work experience is often in the form of internships. In some majors internships are required. Often, regardless of requirement, internships are unpaid. Employers and colleges increasingly use internships to support student success in the long-term. However, the cost of unpaid internships still fall on students. Housing costs, daily meals, travel to-and-from the internship don’t evaporate during unpaid work. Minimum wage in Minnesota is $9.86. If a student takes an unpaid summer internship working 20 hours a week for 12 weeks, their estimated total lost wages (pre-taxes) is $2,366. For an unpaid intern, working 40 hours a week for 12 weeks, the total lost wages are closer to $5,000. 

Yet, for some, internships provide the opportunity for learning, industry connections, or new experiences that can outweigh the lost wages. Evidence shows that internships improve employability, academic outcomes, and usually help students clarify career choices. Studies also show that 65% of employers are looking for candidates with industry specific work experience. Students who had relevant internships to their careers were twice as likely as their peers to find a job right after graduation.

Students United does not have a stance on paid or unpaid internships as part of our Student Platform. However, we do advocate for college affordability. To support students who are going into public service careers or interested in public service while in college, Students United awards the Tim Penny State and Federal Fellowships. For students who intern in public service roles in Minnesota, the Penny Fellowship provides $2,500. For students who intern in Washington D.C., the Penny Fellowship provides $5,000. These fellowships provide students the opportunity to leverage their interests and take the right internship for them with the help of a stipend. 

A 2018 State Fellowship winner, Nasra Farah, explained her internship this way, “I was required to finish 480 hours to obtain my social work degree. That is 32 to 40 hours a week. I was also taking classes at the same time. Therefore, I was supposed to spare time to do my assignments. As a student who has no family or any support system around, I also have an obligation to work and pay for my bills. I was so blessed to receive the fellowship scholarship, which has lightened my financial burden. I work less because I did not have to pay for my classes out of pocket. I was provided an opportunity to do my internship with a domestic violence agency in Saint Cloud Area.” 

On June 20th, people from across the state will gather in Red Wing, MN to support students like Nasra at the annual Penny Golf Scramble. Won’t you join us?