Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Students Talk Interning Abroad Through U.Va. Global

How do most college students spend their summer? Many take up internships; some enroll in summer classes; others use the break to study abroad.

This summer, some overachieving University of Virginia students have found that it’s possible to do all three, thanks in part to the new U.Va. Global Internship Program.

After wrapping up their French-immersion summer study-abroad program in Morocco in June, Adam Diehl and Alexa Cecil were some of the first students to extend their overseas stays by finding internships through the program, which launched this January. They moved to the nearby cities of Rabat and Casablanca to start their new work positions – one planned, the other spur-of-the-moment.

Diehl, a rising third-year physics major, found that after enjoying his study-abroad experience so much, he wanted to stay longer and continue working on his French. He asked U.Va. Global Internship Program director Majida Bargach, who also heads the U.Va. in Morocco program, about extending his stay, and she linked him with a insurance company in Rabat that had recently partnered with the new U.Va. venture.

Though he had no experience in insurance, he said “why not?” to the opportunity to shadow the heads of the company. During his six-week internship, Diehl found that working abroad meant taking a major plunge into the real Moroccan world.

“You’re not with your ‘safety group’ of Americans anymore,” he said. “You’re working with people who are generally older than you, so you feel like you’re required to carry yourself in a professional way. You’re thrown in the real world with real people who don’t speak English, and you just have to try to fit in. But it’s not as hard as it seems, because they know you’re here to learn.”

Cecil, a rising third-year biology and French major from Richmond, lined up her internship before leaving the U.S. She worked at l’Association de Lutte contre le SIDA, a non-governmental organization in Casablanca that fights AIDS through research and awareness. She researched the mentalities and self-esteem of people with HIV living in Morocco, where the disease carries a huge negative social stigma.

“It’s one of those experiences that makes you grow as a person,” said Cecil, who knew she wanted to return to the country after first spending time there in high school. “I don’t put any value in a stereotype anymore; it’s just so refreshing to learn from people. No matter where you are in the world, science is the same, and everyone has the same end goal – it’s just a different culture.”

Cecil and Diehl, who had never been to a Muslim country, found themselves working through an unexpected obstacle: fasting in the middle of Ramadan.

“[My coworkers] told me I could eat if I wanted to, but I really wanted to experience it,” Cecil said. “The work day is shortened, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and everyone is very mellow because it’s hot outside, and you’re not eating or drinking. But at night during the feasts, it’s so fun.”

The Global Internship Program works to provide valuable, cross-cultural experiences to help U.Va. students learn to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world. During the first summer of the program, “intern-abroad” positions were also offered in France, Belgium, Japan, India, China, New Zealand and South Africa.

The program also connects recent graduates to internships. Luke Gates, who received his B.S. in architecture in May, was on the job hunt this spring when a staff member in the School of Architecture, who remembered his French fluency and previous study-abroad experience, alerted him to the program. Bargach put him in contact with alumnus James Cowey, an architect in France, and soon Gates signed on for a yearlong internship in Paris.

“It was so funny. I had been looking all over the Internet, writing friends and professors, trying to find employment in France and then Mme. Bargach and U.Va. basically dropped this right in my lap,” said Gates, who was ecstatic at the opportunity to design and build in Europe. “I am so grateful to her and to the program.”

The program relies heavily on alumni for assistance in connecting students to internships, and is currently working on broadening its network. There are also plans to develop a mentorship program with Global Internship alumni as it continues to grow. 

As the U.Va. Global Internship Program continues to seek out quality programming, employers and alumni interested in participating can contact Majida Bargach at mb9bg@virginia.edu.

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