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Internships Abroad
Becoming an Aid Worker

Three Tips For Getting An Internship Abroad—And Getting The Most Out Of One

Article and photo by Alice Banfield

Canoe in Papua New Guinea

The author spent 10 weeks as a Human Rights Intern with a development agency in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Here are the top three things which helped her obtain an internship—and helped her get the most out of it.

1. If You Cannot Find The Internship You Are Looking For, Create It For Yourself

Unless you are really lucky, or are willing to pay to be part of a program which requires a fee, an internship will not be handed to you on a silver platter. Internships in some fields can be competitive, and pinning one down may require some proactivity on your part. For me, coming to the end of my MA in International Development, I knew there were a host of opportunities out there—but there were also hundreds of other students seeking those exact same opportunities. So that is why I decided to create my own instead.

I had been visiting my mom who was at the time volunteering in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, when I decided to do some research on a university paper. This led to connections with a vanguard development agency, high on the list of organizations I wished to work for. When I decided to take the internship elective offered by my university, I got back in touch with those contacts and let them know what I was willing to offer as an intern. Because they had met me in person previously and knew I had been conducting research in the field, the necessary trust had been built. Together we planned a 10-week internship, which the director then officially approved.

The same proactivity helps once you have started your internship. Since my internship was self-made, there was no set project for me to accomplish within the given timeframe. Though the lack of clarity around specific objectives can be scary, it does not have to be. Look for pre-existing initiatives which you can help support rather than starting your own.

2. Remember Your Ultimate Goal

You will not change the world in ten weeks, four months, or however long the duration of your internship. As an intern, your goal is first and foremost to learn. When you are approaching potential companies or organizations, be open about your desire to learn. They will much prefer your humility to exaggerated claims about how much you can offer in spite of your lack of experience. Remember, they have all been there as well. Good employers want to provide talented young people with opportunities.

Once my various internships had started, I found that maintaining a learner mindset helped immensely. At one point, I was asked by a government agency to draft an entire policy for them, something which I had neither the expertise nor the authority to do. Remembering that my primary goal was to learn provided relief and clarity in this instance. I was able to contribute to this request, while not taking on the whole task. I spent time seeking out those who actually had the expertise I was lacking, which in turn would help me learn how to network and tackle such tasks in the future.

3. Get Out Of The Office And Under The Surface

While interning with this international organization, I lived in a traditional house made out of bamboo and sago palm in a village where we fetched our water from a well. The local family, who shared their home with me, also took the time to fill me in on the issues being faced in their community, including the area of human rights, which was the focus of my internship. Though at first glance village life looks idyllic and harmonious, when actually living there I came to see some of the injustices which lie below the surface. Living in the village gave me better insights into these issues than I could get from within the compound where our air-conditioned office was located.

In looking for an internship, look for one where you can incorporate learning outside of the office, be it through living with a host family or spending time in the field. During the internship, take every opportunity you can to get below the surface of things. Invited to the wedding of someone’s cousin’s uncle’s sister-in-law? Go. Someone’s building a house or planting a garden? Offer to help. I have found taking public transport, even when taxis or private vehicles are an option, are one of the best ways to see a new place, and meet the locals.

One final tip: Make sure you learn the language—it goes a long way to opening up the new world you are inhabiting.