On & Off Campus Blog

The value of unpaid internships
The value of unpaid internships
By Andrew Zhao ‘21


This summer, I was accepted to a five-week internship at a Chinese securities brokerage company, Tianfeng International Securities Group, located in Shanghai, China. As I didn't understand much about finances, nor was I as proficient at Chinese as the rest of the interns, I was nervous about the experiences ahead. Adding to the difficulty was that every time I had visited China previously, my parents had always helped me order meals and arrange activities with family friends. This time, after teaching me how to use the subway system and introducing me to my manager, Ray, my father returned to the US, leaving me on my own. 

On my first day, Ray handed me an annual report analysis and left to run meetings. Within minutes, my inability to read the Chinese characters, which included investment terms far more advanced than I used in daily conversation, brought nothing but frustration as I skimmed over the article, only understanding bits and pieces. 

However, after finishing his conference calls, Ray advised me to start learning about the basics of financing first; I spent the first two weeks doing this. As I researched, I noticed that the company dynamic felt uncomfortably like a freshman study hall, as everyone had earbuds plugged in, and for the most part, sat silently at their desk, typing away on laptops. On the bright side, freshman study halls and company workplaces were most likely designed to boost one's work ethic; this time was certainly no different. 

Using Google and my supervisor's advice, I took notes about key terms, such as earnings per share and gross bookings, and learned how to understand financial statements, specifically the annual and the quarterly reports; around me, other interns were writing weekly reports. Generally, Tianfeng Securities' reports correlate the information inside another company's annual reports and quarterly reports, which are released once every year and three months, respectively, such as partnerships, major company changes, and market success, to past and present growth, to reasonably accurately extrapolate future growth. It then sells its services to customers, advising to either buy, sell, or hold certain stocks. Writing constant reports is comparable to writing back-to-back analytical essays, something I'm sure only certain English teachers would enjoy. By reviewing their work and other companies' articles, such as Morgan Stanley, I quickly learned how to structure my own reports. 

Although constantly tired and busy, the interns were extremely patient with and friendly to me, understanding I was only in high school—although, they did joke about me in ways I could not understand. During lunch breaks, they took me to the best restaurants nearby. Surprisingly, all the interns were unpaid, choosing gaining work experience to aid them in finding other jobs.

After intense editing, I had completed my first article about the social media market by the third week. Although it was below company standards, received a lot of constructive criticism from Ray, and was tedious to write, I was extremely gratified to have completed my first report. 

During the fourth week, I got the opportunity to talk to one of the general managers. He explained how the company has the usual established management hierarchy, easiest to envision in the shape of a triangle, with the shareholders and board of directors at the top. His job is to ensure that the company is operating properly, by assigning tasks to people lower in status than him, such as other managers and interns. It does not matter who one supervises, but rather that one does it efficiently. My manager certainly reflected this attitude, managing up to twenty interns at once.

By the final week, I had finished my second report, which was about the growing, yet cutthroat rideshare market, with level five autonomous car fleets anticipated to be deployed in the near future by major companies such as Uber, Lyft, and DiDi. Ray praised my accomplishments, as I had not only learned about financing, but began to interpret information to write my own articles, all within five weeks.

Although I was initially hesitant to travel by myself in China, interning at Tianfeng Securities was certainly one of the most meaningful experiences I've been through, as I learned what working at a company is like, practiced my Mandarin, and strengthened my resourcefulness. I finally began to understand what makes unpaid internships valuable: the work experience. All things considered, this trip increased my willingness to take risks and to travel abroad by myself and was an experience I'll never forget.