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Reuters/Eliana Aponte

Michelle Obama stands up for the practical value of unpaid summer internships

By Amy X. Wang

College summer interns are invariably at the bottom of any organization’s food chain, more often than not overworked, underpaid, and unthanked. Sometimes even unnecessary.

There’s value to taking on an internship yet. Michelle Obama says so.

Stopping by for a surprise visit at Howard University on Sept. 1 to appear as a guest on Seth Meyers’ Late Night comedy TV show, Obama offered sage advice to hundreds of eager-eyed college students beginning the new semester, including to seek out internship opportunities early on—even if they’re unpaid—in order to accrue as much practical career experience as possible.

Her personal assistants are all former White House interns who stood out, she said, quipping:

My life is controlled by 20-something-year-olds. It’s really annoying.

Obama didn’t name specific names, but her personal staff comprises roughly 20 people who were paid a total of $1.5 million in 2010, with individual salaries ranging from $42,000 to $172,000. Millennial-aged personal assistants are likely on the low end of that spectrum and, of course, a lot of people feel that unpaid internships are exploitative and demeaning. Many advocate getting a summer job instead.

But paycheck size probably isn’t that relevant for someone who gets to call working with the first lady of the United States their starting gig.