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Southwestern summer 'internship' sells textbooks

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Numerous students around campus received unsolicited phone calls last week from a man known as “Ben at Southwestern” informing them of their nomination for an internship where they could earn “thousands of dollars.”

Sophomore religion and psychology major Caitlin Jordan said she was excited when she received the call before Spring Break. She attended what she believed to be an information session that she said turned out to be a group interview lead by “Ben,” who did not respond for comment by the time of publication.  

“In that first meeting, [Ben] was trying to push the internship on us as something that would build up our skills,” Jordan said. “He said it ‘may not be right for us if we didn’t find it appealing,’ like we weren’t up to the standard.” Jordan attended another information meeting before ultimately deciding to decline the internship.

Jordan said students at the information sensation asked what other students all over the country may be wondering – Who is Southwestern and what is the catch?

The internship refers to a door-to-door sales job sponsored by Southwestern Advantage, a direct seller and publisher of
educational materials.

Each year, Southwestern Advantage recruits more than 2,000 college students from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa to relocate to a city and become “independent contractors” selling materials throughout neighborhoods, said Trey Campbell, Southwestern’s director of communications.

The company finds housing for 70 percent of its participants through a network of program alumni or families, Campbell said. Other students often rent apartments or hotel rooms. Many students live with experienced peers known as student managers, who make five or ten percent commission from the profits of the students they supervise.

But, what about those “thousands of dollars?”

The average first-year seller makes $2,569 a month, according to Campbell. The company calculated that average based on all students who stayed at least three weeks. Thirty percent of all participants drop out before that benchmark, according to Campbell.

Most students who earn that average amount work six days a week and 12 hours a day, Campbell said.

The summer internship is not paid hourly. Rather, students purchase the books at a wholesale price and then resell them, similar to the business plans of Mary Kay or Pampered Chef, Campbell said.

Broken down hourly and calculated on a 72-hour work week, this average monthly profit would equate to about $8.90 an hour — $1.65 more than
minimum wage.

But as “independent contractors,” students could work as much as they wanted, he said. Some of the most successful students who had made upwards of $30,000 worked more than 80 hours a week.

“Our type of program is very challenging and very involved,” Campbell said. “There are people who do well and people who don’t. Sometimes it’s because they’ve made poor choices or not in it for the right reasons.”

Founded by a Baptist minister in 1889, Southwestern Advantage holds an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. The company became known for veterans who sold the company’s Bibles door-to-door to get back on their feet after the Civil War. Southwestern also has a TCU connection — Spencer Hays, the executive chairman of the board, is an alumnus. 

Wade Burkholder, a sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he thrived in the demanding atmosphere and plans to sell for a
second time this summer.

“The summer was the most difficult thing I ever experienced, but it was also the most rewarding,” said Burkholder. “My first week, I actually started out far below average, only making a few sales. I quickly became much better at selling and made it into the top 100 first-year dealers.”

Originally from Nebraska, Burkholder was assigned to work in Brockton, Mass., where he made around $8,500 after expenses, working
80 hours a week.

“Was I asked to do anything that was difficult or uncomfortable? Every day,” he said. “However, it was the same thing asked of my [student] manager, which I love. I’ve never felt more equality at a job.”

Some veteran sellers did not have such a positive experience, though.

Although Kristen Rae Spicer made $9,500 in the summer of 2005 after her freshman year at the University of Georgia, she profited only about $100.

All students have to pay their transportation to get to a week-long training session called “sales school” hosted in Nashville, Campbell said. Between that, gas, a car accident and food, Spicer said she “walked away with nothing.”

But it wasn’t the money that upset Spicer, the founder of a website called Southwestern Company Truth. It was the “traumatic” emotional stress and poor physical condition that resulted from the summer, she said.

Her summer did not get off to a good start, Spicer said.

When Spicer arrived in her community, she and two other girls were instructed to knock on doors until they could find someone willing to house them for the summer, she said. After two days, an older couple took them in.

During her summer, Spicer said her hair began to fall out, her menstrual cycle halted and she lost considerable weight. She believed sleep deprivation and malnourishment contributed to her problems.

Then, there were the emotional affects of constant disappointment, stress and rejection, she said.

“During the summer, I was experiencing…the feelings that are ‘I need to take care of myself,’ like going to the bathroom, food and crying,” Spicer said. “I didn’t understand the psychological effects until almost a year after. I equate it to a traumatic experience, when you realize what really happened later on.”

But Burkholder said he did not suffer such symptoms because he knew all along that the summer would be extremely difficult.

“I feel like Southwestern gave me a very clear idea of what to expect from them and what I needed to do,” he said. “I would recommend the job to people who want to do very well at something… Honestly, the only thing that [is] needed to have a summer as good as mine is the ability to work hard.”

Campbell said the quality of the experience would come down to whether or not students were doing the program for the “right reasons.”

“If someone is looking for an internship or a challenge, to build a resume, to graduate with life skills or is looking to get into marketing and sales, then that’s the right reason,” Campbell said. “But [you do it] strictly for travel, interested in fun rather than working, think it’s going to be easy, and it’s not… those are the wrong reasons.”

A version of this story appeared in USA TODAY College on April 19. Emily Atteberry is a Skiff staff reporter and a USA TODAY collegiate correspondent. 

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