Lessons Learned: An Internship Abroad in the “Real” World

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1234Given the recent attention on international internships (from the feature in the New York Times to MelibeeU’s upcoming webinar with Pamela Ruiz) I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my own international internship experience lately.  As a French major undergrad, I knew that studying abroad was going to be a critical component to my education (heck, it was the #1 reason I chose to attend Florida State University (FSU)  – their reputation for study abroad programming and scholarship opportunities was unparalleled in the state.)  However, working in an internship abroad was as foreign to me as the plate of escargots I would have the occasion to taste in my sophomore year in college.

After three years of college and coming to the realization that a double major in French and Russian was not getting me towards fluency (or a job) anywhere fast, I took a step back and decided to keep with French and add International Affairs (IA) as a second major.  With FSU’s IA program, I could still keep Russian as a focus but explore my budding interest in politics a bit more.  Though I had heard that FSU awarded two passes to intern at the British Parliament each semester I never really thought that could be me.  Until, that is, one night at my local bar.  Yes, I know many educators would probably cringe, but I was that nerdy student who had decided to apply for an international internship while at the bar.  Ok, so there is a bit of a back story.  I was just back from my summer study abroad program in Paris and was struggling particularly badly with the re-entry process this time; my friends (understandably so!) just could not tolerate one more utterance of my fabulous life in Paris.  Their lives in our small college town had continued on while I was away practicing my guttural ‘R’s’ in a Parisian institute.   I came back a different person and they seemed, well, foreign to me.  I didn’t feel like I fit in any more.  That is why after deciding to add the more political focus to my education, I printed off the internship application for the Parliament internship pass and headed to the bar to meet my one friend who had traveled abroad before.  After a soul-searching discussion about what would I really be missing for a semester at home and coming to grips with the fact that I *could* survive in a foreign work environment for a whole semester (my longest study abroad experience prior had been four weeks) I completed the application and turned it in the next day.  Before long I was being asked what political preferences I had and buying a cold-weather wardrobe that could see me through the bitter London winter (remember–Florida guy here!)  I had succeeded in obtaining one of the Parliamentary Intern passes!

My office buildings–the Portcullis House (left) and the Palace of Westminster with towering Big Ben (right).

Though I can identify several things I learned about myself, about starting a career, and about other cultures, I am quite certain I’ve not even scratched the surface as to all the takeaways I gained from completing this international internship.  Sure, there are the superficial romanticisms of the gig that included working in the Palace of Westminster and being the right-hand man to a real Member of Parliament, however I learned so much about myself as a person and what I wanted out of life that still shocks me today.

For one, I became a more politicized and patriotic person.  Though I was interested in learning about politics before I went to the U.K., I still was a novice and did not quite know where I stood on certain issues.  What’s more, I harbored much disdain for the American way thanks to my transformative, albeit limited experiences, in one other culture.  Interning at the British Parliament allowed me to reflect on issues I had not really taken a stance on.  In exploring political issues such as education and immigration in a different context and being asked about my home country’s policies, I was forced to take ownership, become more knowledgeable, and in turn, have a stance on the issues.  Interestingly enough, this was also the time of the primaries between Obama and Clinton in 2007.  As part of my internship I was asked to go door-to-door campaigning for the Liberal Democrats’ London Mayoral candidate.  Of course, when the lovely English people answered the doors and heard my American accent they wanted nothing more but to know why on earth I was in Surrey campaigning for a London Mayoral candidate when such a historic election was taking place in my home country.  In a way, being abroad I was made to think more deeply about my home culture than when I was actually at home.  And let’s not leave out the mention of how actually completing a political internship showed me that I did not necessarily want to jump into a political career right away.  My internship experience was incredible, but taking a semester to try the job out before I bought it was a critical factor in helping me to think carefully about what my next steps would be after college.  I saw that I was so interested in talking to my fellow students about culture shock and travel–could this be a career?

I need not mention the fact that taking me out of Collegetown U.S.A. and dropping me in one of the business capitals of the world and having to wake up 6 AM every kyleinlondonmorning to commute was a strong lesson in learning the ways of the real world.  I used to lament my teachers who would drone on about “When you’re in the real world, you’ll see…” What do you mean when I’m in the real world…am I not existing right now?  No, Kyle, you were in a lovely semblance of that real world.  The true real world is slapping the alarm that goes off at 6 AM and making your way out into the icy February London air as you learn that you actually have a taste for coffee that early in the morning because you need something to keep you awake on your hour-long train ride to the constituency office and then, oh yes, back again at the end of the day to fight among the throngs of commuters coming and going into the city.  Not to mention as you enter the study center you see your peers who are studying abroad all enjoying themselves in the student lobby.  That is when you notice the divide between the world our parents and teachers keep us protected in and the real world.

Interning in London might not have been the most exotic thing I could have done with my time in college, but it certainly shaped me into being a more prepared student for the global workforce that has become a hallmark of almost every higher education institution’s mission statement.  While as an international educator I do believe that we should be doing more to ensure that our students are getting more than just a resume boost from study abroad programs, the very nature of working in another culture helps to ensure that at some level, cultural reflection and integration are taking place.  I worked alongside other Parliament interns who were British and my age, tried my best to understand when my Member of Parliament was speaking seriously and otherwise just employing the famous British dry humor, and attempted to understand an iota of a phone conversation with a Scotsman who might have called in during my time in the office.  I learned that when I’m asked to update my Member of Parliament’s diary that he does not expect me to recount his day’s adventures but rather update his calendar, that the British National Health System has real struggles with ensuring accessible dental care for all citizens, and that childhood obesity was not just a problem relegated to the U.S. Thanks to London hosting the then forthcoming Olympics, I was involved in research pertaining to this phenomenon.  Interning abroad is a way that can mix the importance of preparing students for the much-coveted job placement after college and the ideals we as international educators have of ensuring that our students truly learn about culture.

Kyle Rausch
Kyle Rausch

About the Author:  Kyle Rausch works for Arizona State University’s Study Abroad Office in Tempe, Arizona.  In the past he has served as Immigration Specialist and Passport Acceptance Facility Manager at Florida State University where he is finishing his MS in Higher Education Administration.  He is also an “elderbee” at Melibee Global.