Blog | Lindsey Smallwood

My Time as an Unpaid Intern

Lindsey Smallwood

Thrilled to have my first essay up over at Venn Magazine today:

The year after I graduated college I worked as an unpaid intern.

I know, right? A sentence every millennial will have in their memoir.

But it’s true. I left sunny Austin, Texas for gloomy northern Illinois and the glory and glamour of interning for exactly zero dollars.

Like most college graduates, I was hopeful. I wanted to use my life to make a difference, ready to try my hand at life outside of a structured school setting. Without a clear sense of my next step – law school? missions work? teaching? – I decided to complete a year-long service program at a large church I’d heard about from our pastor.

On my first day, I realized this was probably not the best fit for me.

Most of my fellow interns were recent high school grads and had never lived away from their parents until now. The tasks given to us were mostly working in the office or cleaning around the campus. Helpful to the church, certainly, but it seemed like I was squandering my experience tutoring other undergrads, writing for the English honor society and managing legal paperwork at the law firm where I worked part-time for money.

I felt odd and old and out of place. Not the best way to start a new chapter.

One day in particular, a church staffer came into the intern room with a list of our assignments for the afternoon. I was asked to clean out a storage room. I felt fine about this until another girl’s name was called to work on editing the church newsletter.

“Seriously?” I thought. “But my undergraduate degree is literally specialized in grammar and editing. And I’m organizing kid’s craft supplies? What a waste!”

And there, in that moment, the still small voice in my heart began to speak.

This isn’t about your degree or your gifts or your abilities.

This isn’t about what you can accomplish.

This isn’t about how needed you are.

Will you be faithful to finish what you’ve started?

I thought about that question all afternoon as I cleaned.

I’d committed to stay there for a year, to serve in any capacity that was asked of me. There were 9 months left.

Could I finish what I started?

This job wouldn’t bring me a lot of meaning or opportunities to develop my gifts. It wouldn’t even bring me a paycheck. 

Could I finish what I started?

I was lonely and homesick and constantly second-guessing what I was doing with my life. My parents told me there was no shame in quitting, that they’d support me if I wanted to move home and try something else. And yet, I’d made a promise to serve there, in that place, for that season.

Could I finish what I started?

The question became a challenge that lived in my spirit. I wanted to finish well, to fulfill the commitment I’d made, and to do it faithfully. In those months of feeling overlooked and undervalued, I found a strength growing in my own heart as everyday I saw again that I was capable of keeping a hard promise.

I finished the internship that June.

And as I left that place I knew already that the lesson I was taking with me was that there are things you do because you love them and they move your passions and fill you with joy – and there are things you do because you said you would.

Since then, I’ve learned that sometimes those things are the same.

Like writing.

And marriage.

Maintaining a spiritual life.


Some days I feel alive with energy and ideas, finding my purpose right here these moments I’m present to. And other days I persevere because I said I would, because I want to be faithful to my husband, to my family, to my friends, to my community. I keep my promises because I serve a God who keeps His – even when it’s costly to the point of death – and invites me to be made more into His image.

Keeping our commitments is a way of shining God’s light on our corner of the world.  In a frantically busy age of bailing out via text message at the last minute and waiting to RSVP lest something better come along, keeping a promise can be a radical act of loving your neighbor. And being faithful to our word changes us as well, prepares us for the bigger commitments that lie ahead.

After all, no one is an unpaid intern forever.