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Three Key Tips For Securing An Internship Abroad

...And Getting The Most Out Of One

Article and photos by Alice Banfield

Author with human rights workshop participants.
Author with Human Rights Workshop participants.

The author spent ten weeks as a Human Rights Intern with a development agency in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. Here are the top three things that 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 fortunate or are willing to pay to be part of a program that requires a fee, you will not have an internship handed to you on a silver platter. Internships in some fields can be competitive, and pinning one down may require some proactivity. Coming to the end of my MA in International Development, I knew there were many opportunities out there — but hundreds of other students were also seeking those same opportunities. So, that is why I decided to create my own instead.

I had been visiting my mom, who was volunteering in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea when I decided to do some research on a university paper. My stay 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 would offer as an intern. Because they had met me in person and knew I had been conducting research in the field, I had already created the foundation for the necessary trust. Together, we planned a 10-week internship, which the director officially approved.

The same proactive approach 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 that you can help support rather than starting your own.

Youth Human Rights Workshop session.
Youth Human Rights Workshop session.

2. Remember Your Ultimate Goal

You will not change the world in ten weeks, four months, or however long the duration of your internship is. As an intern, your goal is, first and foremost, to learn. When 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 despite 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, maintaining a learner mindset helped immensely. At one point, a government agency asked me to draft an entire policy for them, which I needed to gain the expertise and the authority to do — remembering that my primary goal was to learn provided relief and clarity in this instance. I contributed to this request while not taking on the whole task. I sought out those with the expertise I lacked, which would help me learn how to network and tackle such functions in the future.

3. Get Out Of The Office And Under The Surface

Canoe in Papua, New Guinea.
Bougainville canoe.

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

In looking for an internship, look for one where you can incorporate learning outside the office, whether through living with a host family or spending time in the field. During the internship, take every opportunity to get below the surface of things. Were you 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 that taking public transport, even when taxis or private vehicles are an option, is 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.

House in the village.
My house in the village.
Related Topics
Internships Abroad
Becoming an Aid Worker

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