Inspiring graduate student success

GAPSA leadership and Career Services collaborated to address internship funding disparities and launched The Graduate Summer Internship Program.

For the first time in Penn history, eligible need-based students at all 12 graduate schools have access to apply for financial assistance for unpaid or underpaid summer internships.

Internship funding was a recurring need that Keshara Senanayake, a recent University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School graduate, kept hearing in conversations with fellow students. It became clear to the former Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GASPA) vice president of programming that disparities existed between the schools. While some schools featured robustly funded internship programs thanks to decades of significant alumni support, others had students who required support for career-building summer opportunities.

A group of people seated outside on Penn’s campus in summer.

In response to this recurring need, GAPSA gave a $700,000 gift to Career Services to establish Penn’s first University-wide Graduate Summer Internship Program. More than $200,000 of the gift went to immediate disbursement this past summer. The remaining $500,000 will be put into a permanently endowed fund to provide continual financial support for Penn graduate students.

The Graduate Summer Internship Program aims to defray costs associated with the summer experience, encompassing travel expenses, living costs, and other related expenditures. “When you hear about a problem it just makes sense to do something about it. We chose to create this fund, in hopes of immediately supporting students this past summer and to create the momentum to structurally address this issue,” says Senanayake. “For a long time, we’ve heard this was a problem, but there was no data to back it up. Now, we can collect data about the need and hopefully encourage alumni to support this initiative with the newfound tangibles.”

As the governing body for the approximately 13,000 Penn graduate students, GAPSA is responsible for funding each of the 12 schools through student groups, events, and initiatives for student success. Due to the pandemic halting several of its programs, GAPSA had accumulated a significant amount of carryover funds.

“I am a firm believer that no student should be denied opportunities because of a lack of financial resources,” Senanayake says. “Internships are a prerequisite for career and professional development, and a number in your bank account should not limit your potential. I was able to attend Penn because of the generous support of alumni and the school’s moral obligation to reduce barriers for others.”

A demonstrative need for internship funding for international students became apparent to Senanayake in his conversations with GAPSA peers. Inflation, currency devaluations, and various geopolitical, natural, and economic crises have exacerbated the financial struggles associated with living expenses during underfunded or unpaid internships.

Director of Graduate Career Initiatives Joseph Barber says that Penn Career Services received at least 10 applications from recent mothers or parents, some of whom were supporting several young children. He says this situation is more unique to the graduate student experience, emphasizing added costs associated with balancing an internship experience with finding and paying for childcare.

Read more at Penn University Life.