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Unpaid exposure

As a part of the generation that grew up with extremely spotty dial-up Internet, I used to play educational CD-ROMs with my siblings every chance I got. One of my first experiences on the computer was playing the Oregon Trail. Not the fancy animated ones, either – the little sketchy one that came out some time in the mid-‘90s, with just enough impressiveness to keep a little kid, unexposed to the CGI of the 2010s, busy. Hey, at least it was in color. As anyone who played the Oregon Trail can vouch for, however, there’s a tiny thing wrong with the game: even doing nothing can get you killed.

If one of your characters gets dysentery, it was practically impossible to bring them up to full health. Did you choose a doctor for your party? You’re going to wish that you did, because now everyone in your caravan is dead. Hunting in the game with a tiny early 2000s mouse was a nightmare, and now your party is dying because they have no food. However, one of the most interesting things that someone could die of was simply called exposure.

What was exposure? I didn’t know. I was a single-digit kid who simply knew that death was death. My sister and I would have physical bouts of disappointment every time our party was barely miles away from Oregon and died of exposure. I don’t think I even thought of the thing again until I was “grown up” and in college.

I was looking for a job (as we all are) and found that I just did not have enough experience for the paying jobs. To get a paying job, you needed experience – and to get experience as a college student, you needed to work what I now know as the bane of my existence: unpaid jobs, internships and volunteer positions.

Now, these things by themselves are not necessarily bad things. Internships and volunteer positions are good ways to hone your skills and abilities, especially if it is in a field you are interested in or for a good cause. However, internships and volunteer positions also have a bunch of problems, like the fact that sometimes, no one tells you what to do. You’re just doing nothing, confused for hours for no pay. Responsibilities can overshadow your school and social life, all for no pay. Sometimes, once someone gets something from you, they suddenly drop off the face of the Earth when it comes time for you to get a letter of recommendation. (Also, they didn’t pay you.) It builds your experience, sure – but in what? Is awkwardly handing out papers to people at a table the wave of the future? (If so, then I sure have experience – and no money in my bank account!)

By far, most of these things I can handle. I’m on that grind of trying to build my resume so that someday soon, I can sit down in front of a job interviewer (or the highly formidable Online Application™) and list away all the free things I did so that, hopefully, they find me worthy of a direct deposit position in their company. But there is one thing that I simply cannot stand.


“Can you write a full comic-book script, forty pages? I have an idea that I would love to get out. We won’t pay you, but we can offer you exposure.

“For this project, you will have to commit to 60 hours a week. Experience? Pay? Oh no, I didn’t think money would get involved. I can tell my friends, though, and give you some exposure.

“This job requires you to walk 1,000 miles back and forth in the snow, just like Grandpa always used to claim! It will build character and callouses on your feet! Oh, and I’ll even hook you up with other people who might pay you to do the same thing – so you’ll really value the EXPOSURE.

You know what? People die of exposure. It’s not actually that hard to get exposure either, at least in theory. If I really want exposure, it’s as simple as me walking to a printer, using my PridePrint account and printing 50 copies, running around campus and handing out flyers like it’s tourism central in Times Square. I could create a Twitter and tweet every single day, everything that I did, and someone would be there to see them if I network enough. I could contact companies every single day about my assorted paper-passing skills from my unpaid internships until one of them finally took the bait and liked my hook. I could even do it the old-fashioned way and hike way far out on the open tundra to expose myself and see what happened if I really caught exposure.

Past the sarcasm, you will notice that all these cases of exposure need a lot of hard work on one side and not a lot of hard work on the other side. There is no guarantee that you will get customers from this, instead, you are exposing yourself to getting ripped off. These companies will use your hard work to build their capital, earning money from your “free” art, writing, coding or whatever else you are trying to do. Meanwhile, the most they must do in return is flash your name in front of a couple of people. Nothing that you cannot already do for yourself. Plus, your work can get stolen, mislabeled and miscredited, while you could market them for the same “exposure” while retaining your rights over your own work.

The hard truth is that these companies need me and you more than we need them. Yet, I still trudge on, because unpaid jobs are the key to my future – a wizened, rusted key, but a key nonetheless. I still have my eye on those wondrous, far off things known as “paid internships,” and I will do as many unpaid positions as I need to pad my resume. But there is a line I will not cross. I will not do anything just for the exposure. I am a college student who is trying to become a professional. I deserve something substantial in return for my hard work, and so do you.

In the Oregon Trail, there are many things you can do to survive in your ongoing, fantastical quest to reach Portland. You can seek shelter in your covered wagon to escape the elements. You can hunt to try and get more food so that you are less prone to disease. You can take sketchy, questionable medicines and treatments to hope that you don’t die of dysentery. You can do a lot of things to improve your chances, except be exposed to the elements, be exposed to illness and be exposed to dangerous situations.

Exposure does nothing but kill you. Remember that.

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