Three months ago, ProPublica launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to hire an intern to travel the country and document stories of the emerging intern economy.

Well, they succeeded – and now #ProjectIntern is hitting the road.

I’m Casey McDermott, and this week I am setting off on that cross-country trip to collect interns’ stories. (Meta, I know.)

Our goal here is pretty simple: We want to make the conversation about internships (more) personal.

The national dialogue about internships often focuses on the big picture: important discussions of ethics and lawsuits. What’s missing, though, is a sense of the intern experience from the people who actually take on these positions. By some estimates, that’s anywhere from half a million to one million interns every year. What do interns really do? When are they being paid for their work? What’s the financial or educational payoff? What kinds of sacrifices do interns make, if any, to take on these positions?

Over the next three months, I’ll travel to college campuses around the country to bring a firsthand perspective to the internship issue (check out our itinerary here).

You’ll be able to find stories from the interns I meet on our new Tumblr — The Intern Economy — along with perspectives from college internship coordinators, academic experts and employers.

We’re especially interested in exploring how unpaid internships have proliferated in some industries.

It’s worth noting that this issue is personal for me, too. I just graduated with journalism and sociology degrees from Penn State in May, and I’ve held four internships including this one. Some paid well, and others provided no more than a transportation stipend. Most of my friends have also been interns — paid, for academic credit, unpaid or some combination of the three. Some of my peers view internships as a valuable investment that can lead to future job opportunities — even if they’re not paid much at the time. And some have made unpaid or stipend-based positions work by living at home, or working part-time jobs.

The internship issue affects students differently depending on their major, their financial situation, their career goals and more. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, students who completed an unpaid internship were only slightly better situated for future employment than those who had no internship: 37 percent of unpaid interns received at least one job offer, compared to 35.2 percent for non-interns. (Paid interns fared the best, with about 63 percent receiving at least one job offer.) The same survey also showed that paid interns often earned more as new employees, with median starting salaries of $51,930 versus $35,721 for those with unpaid internships, and $37,087 for those with no internship experience at all. 

An internship is a critical entry point into the workforce, and access, or lack thereof, to such opportunities can have lasting consequences for students. That’s one reason we’re focusing on college campuses — an important intersection between prospective interns and the larger intern economy — trying to document the implications of the “experiential learning” students are doing, or aren’t able to do, while they’re in college.

Check our itinerary to see if we’re coming to your school, and be sure to say hello or share your own intern story by tagging #ProjectIntern on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Stay tuned for more dispatches soon!

For more from our internships investigation, see our latest report on Northwestern's journalism program offering students internships without paychecks, or sign up to help us calculate the cost of college internships