Between a rock and a hard place: gaining “experience”

Amanda

When first assigned this topic exploring internships I was originally going to share my experience as a policy and communications intern with U.N. humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme. For me, it is what I retrospectively refer to as a ‘turning point’ in my life. I met amazing mentors and lifelong friends, and I gained an insightful introduction to humanitarian response and development work and the skills to get me started.

Whilst there is a perception that an elusive U.N. internship is prestigious in a number of varying ways, which I believe is dependent on the perceiver’s value hierarchy, it is also thought of to be exclusive. It would be presumed that the leaders in human rights and equality would practice what they preach, however for many students, the reinforced system of unpaid internships for experience and/or credit points by the U.N. is financially unattainable.

I was fortunate that my placement with WFP is one of the few agencies that pay interns a monthly stipend. What this translates into real terms is that each month I could use the money to either cover my rent, or pay for all of my other living expenses. This meant I needed to be armed with a decent chunk of savings, and some financially-able supportive parents.

All in all it costs to intern at the U.N. and to contribute to ‘the fight against hunger’. Was it worth it though?

Heck yes.

But thinking beyond myself, what does this mean for the sector and the type of professionals that will be able to work in it. It’s often a hard pill to swallow because it can feel as though I must justify why my lottery ticket for life should not be a part of what defines me as a person, but I recognise that I am privileged. I come from Australia, a politically stable (despite past years backroom dealings) and wealthy country. I also live in what is ranked as the most liveable city in the world, Melbourne. Furthermore, my parents were able to realise their efforts and be fortunate to reap the results of their hard work by being able to send my siblings and I to a private school.

I represent a common face at the U.N., and it is the type of face that despite all of the other aspects that I might bring to the table is exclusive to other deserving, intelligent, and passionate students who would contribute much to our ambitious shared goals of alleviating poverty and promoting equality.

So where is the root of this issue? It’s hard to define, as there are various aspects which must be considered.

Supporting academic learning with practical learning is important in ensuring students are ready for the professional world. How students can gain this experience is often by volunteering or interning.

The difference between volunteering and interning can be akin to splitting hairs, and can be dependent on the provider. With an internship however, there is a growing requirement that these roles provide relevant tasks that will help students to practice and develop skills appropriate to their course. This requirement leads to the question that if one is interning for skills development, and not volunteering for altruistic reasons, how should one be compensated? Organisations would argue that compensation is through the opportunities that interning with them provides; networking, experiences, skills etc, the resume padders.

In a sector like international development and humanitarian assistance where field and international experience is a criteria, this means that interns often must give to the role more than they may equivalently take away. Most of all, like many of the criticisms of the international volunteering practices, the outcome of unpaid internships is a reinforcement of power hierarchies that favour those from developed countries.

Following global headlines about a 22-year-old intern from New Zealand living in a tent in Geneva because he couldn’t afford to pay rent, direction of fault was indicated by UN officials stating that responsibility lay with the General Assembly to reverse the rules regarding the non-payment of interns. As many of us are familiar with, seeing such changes made through the G.A. will be glacial.

However, organisations such as the U.N. are not the only players with influence on this issue. Universities, who are increasingly competing to prove their global credentials encourage the uptake of internships, offering course credit for such experiences. There is are two sides to this particular coin. Many internships, from the U.N. or others require that applicants either be attending or have recently graduated from a university degree, and/or must be able to receive credit.

Universities benefit from students successfully undertaking such placements as they can promote their relevance and connection to the job marketplace to prospective students. They also benefit from the fees they charge students for a course they do not even teach.

If internships are often limited to those attending, or have recently attended university, and such placements can receive course credit, and universities have a vested interest in students undertaking such experiences; then arguably they should also help address the issues of inequality. Yes, many offer generous scholarships and grants, which go a long way in covering the cost of undertaking an internship, however they do not often cover the additional costs of the course fee.

This may be a whole other kettle of fish from a university standpoint, and it can be argued that students would be paying that fee regardless if its an internship unit or otherwise.

Although universities are helping to address issues of accessibility through financial support, and should be highlighted, grants and scholarships offered are often not applicable or attainable to all students undertaking an internship. In some cases, support is limited to citizens from where the university is based. Furthermore, not every university is in a position to provide significant support to each student. As such, how much of the burden should be placed with universities?

Perhaps, at the end of the day the argument comes back to the added value that interns do provide, and “a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay”. Everyone learns whilst on the job, an intern no more, and no less.

There’s a simple solution, though it may be lengthy to achieve through the General Assembly, and that’s to recognise the value of interns with compensation. Further, justifying unpaid internships based on students benefiting by receiving course credit, well we students pay for that too.

How to Get the Real Experience Abroad

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My summer internship began back in March 2015 when I applied for the position of Fiji Partnership Manager with the Socio-Economic Engagement and Development club at Monash University (Monash SEED). A student-run club that aims to create social impact through different means such as microfinance. The primary responsibility of the position was the creation of a brand new international project, and involved constant use of basic communications technologies, such as email and Skype, that served as a liaison tool between Monash SEED – and the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD Fiji), the largest microfinance organisation in Fiji.

By selecting this project as my internship, I came to realise that working cross-culturally was going to be challenging. However, I felt confident in my capabilities to not only become experienced with the role and responsibilities of being Fiji Partnership Manager, but also of achieving leadership skills that the role required. And the first step to achieving that was to recruit my team.

At the beginning of semester two, I recruited four enthusiastic undergraduate students. They were always patiently waiting for updates of the partnership with SPBD Fiji. However, things were going slow. One week, the SPBD Fiji General Manager would email me saying to go ahead with the partnership, and by the next week there would be no response at all. I tried to communicate through other means like Skype messaging and phone calls, which only on certain occasions worked.

The role of project manager was challenging: shuffling work between two organizations, and motivating my team, while trying to stay positive waiting for responses. I quickly came to realise that the role was not as easy as I had originally thought. Anantatmula (2010) explains how important the role of the project manager is. A role which involves planning and executing strategies while being able to lead a team. I wanted to do all those things. However, sometimes I felt discouraged, thinking that probably the General Manager was not taking me seriously and that the team members, faced with all the uncertainty, could change their mind and quit at any time. I had to tell my team that I was trying to do my best to make the partnership work, but in case that these efforts were not successful, that they should consider starting to look for other internships or activities for the summer. In the end only one of them decided to part ways with us, the rest patiently waited for further developments.

It was November 2015, two weeks before the semester ended. I was preparing to have an important Skype meeting with the General Manager that week and I was feeling nervous. During the meeting we arrived at the conclusion that we wanted to be part of a project that involved going into the field and help SPBD processes while making a real impact on the women (members), which are the main reason why microfinance works. Then we brainstormed other project topics, from updating manuals, helping with administrative tasks, to improving financial education lessons. We concluded that SPBD needed to know if the members were satisfied with the services provided. Finally, we came up with the idea of creating, conducting and analysing data of a member satisfaction survey.

I realise now that even though I had the means to create a partnership with SPBD since we started the e-mail and Skype arrangements back in July 2015, it was important to have a clear understanding of what the particular objectives and goals of the stakeholders involved. It took me a few months to finally design a project that would benefit all of the stakeholders. Certainly, I learned how to communicate with both my team and the organisation in order to deliver the expected results.

We arrived in Fiji at the beginning of January. A team composed of two undergraduate students with backgrounds in arts and finance, and myself a Master of International Development Practice student. We had two weeks of preparation in Melbourne. Preparing the members satisfaction survey, talking with customer service experts and also arranging accommodation among other travel preparations. Everything was approved and on time. I knew that we were going to surveyed 100 SPBD members, visit a few villages and travel with field officers. All these things required some logistics arrangements which, according to the General Manager, had already been prepared. However, I was a little concerned about how everything was going to turn out. I remembered how things had been very uncertain just a couple of months before. I recalled the time it took just waiting for an e-mail response, and how that made me feel, as though I was not being taken seriously.

Finally, our first day of internship arrived and I was very excited. My team and I waited in a conference room until the General Manager arrived. The first thing that I discussed with him was establishing a sample group. I knew that it was the largest microfinance organization in Fiji, however I was not aware that SPBD had branches in four predominant areas all over the country. The new information changed our perspective of the project in general: we decided to change the sample group to make it more accurate. We changed our entire schedule, which required us to travel by bus from Suva to Sigatoka, Lautoka and then by boat from Suva to Savusavu, Taveuni and Ovalau.

Fortunately, my team agreed to travel and cover the unplanned expenses. We all knew that in order to reduce any bias in the results, travelling to all the branches to survey its members was essential. We went back to the hostel, very excited for the days to come working in the field. I felt very lucky on having an amazing team, and I felt like I was doing a good job as a Project Manager.

During my summer internship, I have been exposed to a wide-ranging array of people, ideas and culture. It certainly gave me firsthand experience on working cross-culturally. The role offered me practical insight into the workings of a real world microfinance institution and its impacts in development scopes. Gaining knowledge and skills, such as team work, time and budget management, and ability to negotiate and delegate. Proving a strong awareness of the position between both of the organizations, I have initiated, developed and maintained an effective partnership between them, associated groups and external agencies and individuals.

For those seeking internship placements, my suggestion to you is this: Have you considered contacting organisations or institutions and proposing a project? You don´t need to wait for the perfect internship position to open up, you can begin a partnership with a simple e-mail or Skype meeting to discuss a project that could benefit both… And just be patient.

Reference:
Anantatmula, V S 2010. Project Manager Leadership Role in Improving Project Performance. Engineering Management Journal, 22, pp.13-22.