Interning abroad expands students' horizons
By Karin Dienst
Princeton NJ -- Overseas travel is on the itinerary for many Princeton students during their undergraduate careers. But some students take their travels an extra mile by combining them with public service internships. According to the students who recently did both, working to make a difference really can make an imprint on their lives.
Forty-nine Princeton undergraduates spent the past summer pursuing internships supported by Princeton's International Internship Program (IIP). Established in 2001, the fledgling program enables students to work for up to eight weeks with a variety of organizations around the world. IIP emphasizes opportunities in the fields of education, health services, human rights and sustainable agriculture.
According to Elena Uribe, director of the program, IIP is distinctive compared to what most universities offer in that it helps students seek placements and provides funding, on average $2,000 to $2,500 per student. A goal is to support students even more by increasing institutional funding; currently IIP is backed financially by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Pace Center for Community Service and the Office of Religious Life.
"Working closely with the Study Abroad Program, IIP ensures internationalism as a part of undergraduate education at Princeton," said Uribe. "In many cases, the internship changes the way students think about their majors and offers ideas for their senior theses and careers."
IIP also is collaborating with the Princeton in Africa and Princeton in Asia programs to create new summer initiatives. Through various academic departments, undergraduates also can arrange paid summer programs, such as the German Summer Work Program, Princeton in France and the Ishikawa internships in Japan.
Building on her own international experience after 18 years with the Mexican foreign service, Uribe continually explores and vets new possibilities for students, paying close attention to the evaluations funded students complete upon their return to campus.
This fall, five students told the Weekly Bulletin about their international internships: Sun-Kyung Cho, a senior; Avril David, a junior; Iva Kleinova, a sophomore; Marilyn Waite, a sophomore; and James Walter, a senior.
Sun-Kyung Cho -- Bangkok, Thailand
Her interest sparked by a previous summer working at the State Department's International Labor Office in Washington, D.C., Sun-Kyung Cho, an economics major from Centreville, Va., wanted to observe actual labor conditions in a developing country. After consulting with Uribe, she secured an internship through the State Department with the Economics Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. The internship was unpaid, but IIP provided enough funding for most of Cho's traveling and living expenses.
"They were the most amazing three months of my life," said Cho. She worked with a labor officer on a wide range of issues, which included visits to factories. The experience was so profound that after returning to campus, she changed the focus of her senior thesis to a more labor-related topic.
"We went to Mae Sot, a town on the Thai-Burmese border, to observe working and living conditions of Burmese migrant workers," said Cho. "At two of the sites, conditions were in an unspeakable state with no running water and crammed rooms housing up to 30 people. Most factories in the area make ceramic and garment products and specifically hire young Burmese girls, whose small hands are deemed best suited for this type of manufacturing work. It was humbling to see and changed my perspectives in many ways."
With housing provided by the embassy, Cho said she missed the possibility of benefiting culturally from living with a Thai family, but she made the most of her free time to explore Bangkok.
"I found that the best way to get to know the city was taking the skytrain to random locations and walking around for a couple of hours," she said. "I think it is always easy for Americans to maintain an American way of life abroad. The best thing is to avoid these traps and go out there and immerse yourself in a new culture."
Avril David -- Geneva, Switzerland
A politics major also pursuing certificates in Japanese and African studies, Avril David wanted to gain working experience with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focusing on international relations and development. She chose an internship with Femmes Africa Solidarité in Geneva, where she also could practice her French. She received $2,500 in funding from IIP.
David, who is from Eastampton, N.J., said that a highlight of the internship was attending United Nations conferences as well as a seminar on human rights, and reporting the events back to the NGO. "I learned a lot about the way the U.N. works, in addition to policymaking and the negotiation process in general," she said. "I'm now certain that I'd like to go to law school for human rights and trade law. I have a strong interest in the rights of developing countries and indigenous peoples and their ways of life."
In Geneva, David lived in a youth hostel referred to her by the NGO. "It was a great way to meet other interns and make friends," she said. "I ended up having six roommates during my stay -- from Italy, German-speaking Switzerland, Spain and the United States."
Spending three months in Switzerland also gave David time -- mostly on the weekends -- to explore other destinations by train with her "handy Eurailpass," including Paris, Milan, Verona, Bern and Zurich.
Iva Kleinova -- Prague, Czech Republic
Now a sophomore, Iva Kleinova (third from left) was eager to return home to Prague last summer and work in an organization that focused on an important social issue. With IIP funding, she interned at Prague's Counseling Center for Refugees, trying to help asylum seekers from places such as Chechnya, Kazachstan, Afghanistan and Armenia struggle with learning about a different culture and facing an uncertain future.
Kleinova's immediate task was to familiarize herself with Czech asylum law, "asking millions of questions" in the process. She then researched and wrote a report about the social and welfare benefits of rejected asylum seekers in select western European countries.
Another aspect of her internship was to visit a refugee camp once a week with the center's lawyers and social workers. It often was a grim experience, particularly since, according to Kleinova, only approximately 1 percent of asylum seekers in the Czech Republic gain asylum. "Sometimes it was extremely difficult to offer any kind of advice since I never had been exposed to people who had gone through so much pain and struggle," she said.
At the center, Kleinova observed how much bureaucracy its employees had to deal with, which she said "made it difficult to develop long-term policies and strategies." Yet she found it remarkable to work alongside human rights leaders, some well known in Czech society as opponents of the previous Communist regime.
Kleinova credits the internship with crystallizing her desire to "work with minorities and address the issue of discrimination." But first she said she has to decide on a major -- perhaps politics or history -- and earn a Princeton degree.
Marilyn Waite -- St. Lucia, the Caribbean
An environmental engineering major, Marilyn Waite points to a conference held last year at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs on building sustainable coastal communities in the Caribbean with prompting her to seek out an internship on one of the islands.
Working with IIP, Waite got funding for an internship as a laboratory officer with the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI) in St. Lucia.
Instead of going home to Fort Washington, Md., Waite spent several weeks learning about the water resources of St. Lucia through a scientific and policy-based approach.
Working with a lab partner, Waite said she "went out into the field to test water, collecting samples from taps, sewage treatment plants, pools, rivers and other locations for hotels and various organizations." She explained that they tested for residual chlorine, pH and dissolved oxygen on site, then took the samples back to the lab for further tests.
Waite also volunteered at CEHI's exhibition for World Environment Day, which helped her "gain insights into the island's culture." In St. Lucia, she shared an apartment with a CEHI engineer.
The hands-on experience of the internship convinced Waite to study environmental engineering. "I was even able to perform the actual tests that we discussed in some of my classes," she said.
James Walter -- Oaxaca, Mexico
James Walter was back home in Chicago for a quick four days after finishing a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, before flying to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a summer internship with Child Family Health International.
The English major's goals were to polish his Spanish while learning about health services in Mexico in a program that is geared toward medical students. Walter, who has completed his pre-med requirements, plans to study medicine in the near future. But first he is applying to postgraduate fellowships in the United Kingdom.
In Mexico, Walter said he particularly enjoyed talking to doctors and their patients in three different medical settings. With rotations organized by a local doctor, Walter visited a one-room family practice clinic; a children's hospital, where he entertained children awaiting surgery; and a crowded emergency room in Oaxaca's largest general hospital.
"It was amazing to see what people sacrificed just to get to the hospital," said Walter. "Patients from poor rural communities traveled a long way to get there. Shelters were available for those who could not afford a place to sleep while waiting for patients."
Walter, who lived with an Oaxaca family, said the whole experience "put things in a new perspective." He said he learned to appreciate what he had, while gaining a better grasp on life in another part of the world.
"I'd advise Princeton students who go on an international internship to meet as many different types of people as possible," said Walter. "Students also should be willing to live outside their comfort zone. I realized I did not need all the amenities I was used to."