What If Wealthy College Kids Were Required to Do Low-Wage Jobs?

The pros and cons of an internship program that tries to teach students about class divisions
Miguel Villagran/AP Images

Sawsene Nejjar is a student at L'Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, a private college in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. The summer after her first year at the school, she prepared for an unusual aspect of her education: an internship selling furniture at KITEA—think French Ikea.

“I had my nail polish, my hair done, my makeup done. I felt good, but everyone was looking at me like, ‘Who’s this bourgeoisie coming here? Why is she talking in French every time she’s talking on the phone? Why is she always smiling?’” said Nejjar, who is currently in her third year.

Her co-workers were different than she was. Mostly members of the middle class, they did not attend private school, if they attended post-secondary school at all. They didn’t talk to each other in French. (The official language is the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, though private school teaches French at a young age and public school teaches it a few years later.) The way they spoke the Moroccan dialect of Arabic was different, too.

“Sometimes when I talked in Moroccan dialect at first they were laughing because it’s this strange accent for them,” said Nejjar.

Nejjar’s internship did exactly what it was designed to do—expose her to people different than she is and teach her about power dynamics along the way.

* * *

L'Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie is a small private school that costs 68,900 dirhams, or about $8,400, a year to attend. (Public schools, on the other hand, are free.) The school’s 200 students spend their first three years as undergraduates, and their third year is required to be spent abroad. They return for their fourth and fifth years to specialize as master’s students, training to be leaders in government, diplomacy, academia and non-governmental organizations.

The summer after the first year, students undergo a month-long internship that endeavors to introduce them to people who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is supposed to teach students about the needs of others as well as give them a fundamental understanding of how leadership is structured in companies. Internships such as this are not unique to L'Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, and are common among economics students.

Nejjar thought of herself as “foreign” when she started her internship because she felt like she had little in common with her co-workers. In addition to the language difference, Nejjar felt that her “secular” way of thinking was very different from her co-workers, many of whom were deeply religious.  

“I wasn’t allowed to show my shoulders, legs, even my feet,” Nejjar said . . . “I wasn’t allowed to put on a lot of makeup.”

The majority of Moroccans are Muslim, but wearing a headscarf is culturally optional. In general, in the more affluent parts of town and around the schools women tend to wear them less, and seeing shorts and skirts is not outlandish. In less affluent parts of town, more women wear the scarves and it's rare to see bare legs.

“Every time you see a girl come in, even if she is a customer who wants to buy big things, if she wears shorts then they will of course sell, but after she goes back they will talk about her for hours and hours,” she said. “I felt so uncomfortable, because I’m used to being this girl who comes to the shop with a skirt or with shorts and to feel free in her own country.”

Even smiling is different. Nejjar smiles all the time, but for people in other social classes smiling to a man is seen as an invitation. When the managers would ask the buyers to smile—not flirtatiously—at the buyer for better customer service, it brought resentment from the sellers.

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Michelle Sutherland is the advertising adviser to the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech.

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