The Tough-Love Approach to Career Guidance

“You don’t want someone that will tell you exactly what to do. That’s not the point of a mentor.”

Interns with then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008 (Jae C. Hong / AP)

Internships are often touted as a key to future career success. But working internships can be made infinitely more difficult for students whose parents can’t afford to supplement their living expenses while they build their resume. That’s because many internships remain unpaid. In fact, reports show that of the 61 percent of students who interned during college, over half worked unpaid positions.

Opening up access to internships allows people to tap into the networks and mentors that can set them up for entry-level opportunities. Before a professional relationship evolves into a mentorship, the mentor and mentee need a “genuine” familiarity with each other, so internships can serve as a foundation for that guidance.

Launched last year, Pay Our Interns, a bipartisan nonprofit, recognized the lack of advocates fighting for organizations to pay their interns, especially jobs in the public sector located in hubs like Washington, D.C. and New York. The group wants to change the privilege pipeline that oftens rewards young professionals from wealthy, connected backgrounds and leaves low-income, people of color out of the running for opportunities in their respective fields.

As part of our series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with with Pay Our Interns founder, Carlos Mark Vera, to talk about his struggle interning for free as a first-generation college student and who guided him along the way as he explored passions in politics and advocacy. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisha Brown: You were an intern in Congress and you have said this about the experience: “I remember walking through the halls of Congress and feeling intimidated and out of place because the only people that looked like me were the custodial workers.” Tell me more about that experience and who you looked up to at that point?

Carlos Mark Vera: That was my first internship ever. I was 17 years old and new to the whole scene. I had to buy a tie and all these things. It was not an easy internship, but I really bonded with a fellow named Dr. Steven Troy, an African American man that worked in the U.S. Census Bureau. He listened to me and mentored me in many ways. He said there’s three things you need to know for any job: how to communicate, how to work with others, and how to add and subtract [laughs]. I had a love and hate relationship with that internship. I felt very isolated. It was a different world for me. And it didn’t help that I also had to work another job while taking six classes. Dr. Troy made it better.

Brown: You also mentioned being exhausted during that internship, because you wound up having to take on a part-time job for living expenses. Do you think people who didn’t have to work in addition to interning fared better in their internships?

Vera: Definitely. A good portion of the interns on the Hill, their parents were roommates, neighbors, or knew someone, like the chief of staff or even the member themselves. It’s very much the “good ol’ boys” network. They don’t have to worry about the cost. They have connections already there, and they can just focus on doing their internship. As opposed to a lot of people of color, we also have to focus on how we are going to pay our bills.

Brown: I know Dr. Troy was a much needed support system as you were trying to start your career. What do you think about mentorship now?

Vera: Sometimes there is this notion that you have that one mentor and they stay with you for 20 years, until you die or something. I think it’s a little more fluid. I have different types of mentors. I have had different career trajectories, so I’ve had more than one. There are mentors that have been here for a season. I had one or two mentors while I was in undergrad, but I currently have a mentor in the political world.

Brown: Who is that?

Vera: Albert Morales—he’s worked in the Democratic party for 30 years. He isn’t someone who says,“Oh you’re doing a great job.” He gives you that tough love. You don’t want someone that will tell you exactly what to do. That’s not the point of a mentor. It’s to guide you. You want people that will be honest and direct with you. But Albert will say, “You know what? You’re messing up,” or “I think you can do this a better way. ” Having that tough love for me is important. In some ways it’s accountability that you’re not always gonna get from other people.

Carols Vera and his mentor, Albert Morales (courtesy of Vera)

Brown: How’d you meet Albert?

Vera: I met him at a DNC conference. He was a panelist, and I came up to him after the event and got his business card, I emailed him. No response, [laughs]. I saw him at another event [and then] I was actually the moderator for his panel one year later. People are very busy. I have seen that it takes a couple of times to get to meet someone. Don’t take it personally. We started meeting, started chatting, and it kind of blossomed from there.

Brown: So you see constructive criticism as an integral part of mentorship. What’s the best piece of advice Albert has given you?

Vera: That it’s not about me. It’s about the work that we do. We’re working for our community, but we can’t make it about ourselves. Sometimes you can lose sight of that. [Seeing Albert] starting as someone that came here with no job and broke, and then becoming one of the top people in the party gave me hope.

Brown: You’ve led initiatives, like Pay Our Interns and increased workers’ rights at American University, your alma mater. What kind of advice have you been given about your work on those endeavors?

Vera: I love hearing different ideas and opinions before I make a big move. Before the Pay Our Interns launch, I met with someone who said “this idea is not gonna fly in D.C.” You have to keep in mind that their idea of what success looks like may not be yours. That’s one of the things I’ve learned the hard way. Sometimes take advice with a grain of salt. Not everything that comes out of the mouth of someone, it doesn’t matter how seasoned they are in the field, applies to you.

Brown: Do you look to Pay Our Interns as a pay-it-forward process to our next generation of up-and-coming leaders?

Vera: We’re creating a pipeline. Our job is to help someone build a resume through internships. Once they have internships, we connect it all. We’re going to have workshops, giving the best practices we’ve learned. One of the things we learned is that some people just don’t want to ask for help. I push people that it does not hurt to ask. The worst thing you can get is no. Especially as people of color, we say, “We should just be grateful that we’re there.” No. Speak up; you have rights. We’re going to be releasing a list of rights that you have as an intern.

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