Students who intern abroad immerse themselves in a new culture and gain much more than practical experience

By Margaret Costello

Nairobi, Kenya

Courtesy of Nikea Williams

Nikea Williams ’04 takes a break from her work at the Mathari Valley Community Resource Center, where she studied African community theater.

Last summer, Suzanne Wheeler ’04 set off for the fishing village of Woe, Ghana, intending to study how the West African nation’s social beliefs and religion affected its health care system. Little did she realize that her work there as an HIV/AIDS educator with two non-governmental organizations would change her view of the world forever.

She will never forget delivering and resuscitating a breach baby at a women’s clinic. Nor will she forget one villager’s starved skeletal frame and how this naked figure called out to her in fluent English from the roadside, desperate to be noticed. “Everyone who passed by was pointing and laughing and looking at me like I was crazy, because I was talking to her,” she says. She witnessed firsthand how the Ghanaian culture deals with people in the advanced stages of HIV/AIDS. “Once they become visibly sick, they’re pretty much shunned and thrown to the street,” says Wheeler, a biology and philosophy double major and a Class Marshal in the College of Arts and Sciences. “This woman’s family would let her sleep in their yard, but they wouldn’t feed her. They wouldn’t care for her. She was pretty much left to die.”

While Wheeler’s internship experience may be exceptional on some levels, many Syracuse University students who have held internships abroad say their experiences have had dramatic effects on their perception and understanding of other people and cultures and on their interest in them. American students are seeking international experiences in record numbers, despite the conflicts—armed and diplomatic—that the U.S. government is involved in around the globe. In 2001-02, the number of American students studying abroad rose 4.4 percent, according to Open Doors 2003, an annual report published by the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Syracuse University’s Division of International Programs Abroad (DIPA) is among the national programs that showed an increase in study abroad participation, with 947 students (86 more than the previous year) enrolled in 2001-02. Of those studying abroad, more are opting to take internships. For example, the number of students at SU’s DIPA centers in Florence and London holding internships has tripled during the past five years. During 2002-03, nearly half of the students at SU’s Madrid DIPA center participated in internships. This trend results from the University’s efforts to provide students with opportunities to gain international experience coupled with an emphasis on practical applications of classroom learning, as outlined in the University’s Academic Plan. “American students grapple with understanding our world and America’s place in it,” Vice Chancellor and Provost Deborah A. Freund says. “They don’t understand anti-Americanism, and they are culturally and practically unprepared to enter a global business world.”

The University has also created fund-raising initiatives to establish scholarships for students seeking international experiences. Wheeler, for example, received $4,600 as a 2003 recipient of the Mark and Pearle Clements Internship Award, funded by Mark Clements ’36 and his late wife, Pearle Ness Clements ’35. The award provides financial support to students who want to undertake innovative or unusual internships that link theory and practice, but who are unable to finance the experience. Administered by the Syracuse University Internship Program (SUIP), the award ranges from $2,500 to $5,000 and is given to a select few juniors and seniors who design an internship, recruit a faculty sponsor, and make all their own arrangements. “The Clements awards provide a tremendous opportunity to ambitious students who want a unique internship experience tailored to their academic interests,” says SUIP director Helen Murray, who oversees the placement of approximately 600 of the 4,500 SU students in internships each year, including many overseas. “It would be great to have more support for students who seek those experiences.”

Many of the schools and colleges or departments on campus are committed to finding resources to help students cover the costs of international internships, especially for those students who do some legwork first. “One of my African American studies professors put the idea in my head to get an internship in Kenya, so I went home, came up with a proposal, laid out the costs, and shopped it around campus,” says Nikea Williams ’04, an African American studies and television-radio-film double major in the College of Arts and Sciences and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “I took my proposal to different schools to see if people would help me with funding. Eventually, I was funded by the College of Arts and Sciences and the Division of Student Affairs.”

Williams spent her winter break working at the Mathari Valley Community Resource Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and studying how the Mathari Valley neighborhood and similar ones use traditional community theater productions to tackle AIDS and other issues. “African art and politics are inextricably woven together,” Williams says. “African community theater explores problems in the local neighborhood as inspiration for its acting, songs, dances, and poetry. After the performance, the audience and actors talk about possible solutions to the problems and mobilize the people. It’s very effective, and I’d like American communities to feel similarly empowered and willing to take action.”

Madrid, Spain

Courtesy of Dan Nowacki

Dan Nowacki ’04 poses with his host family, who helped him improve his conversational Spanish.

The trip also held great significance for Williams on a more personal level. “I’ve always dreamed of setting foot on the African continent,” she says. “As an African American and a descendant of enslaved Africans, I don’t really have a clue as to my ancestry. Kenyans accepted me because they saw so many similarities. I became an unofficial Kenyan.”
Like Williams, Dan Nowacki ’04, a computer engineering major in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, sought out an internship abroad for personal reasons. Nowacki, who had studied Spanish in high school, wanted to revive his language skills and immerse himself in another culture. DIPA helped him find a summer internship at the Solar Energy Institute at the Technical University of Madrid. The DIPA center in Madrid also placed him with a host family in a city apartment. “My host family was great,” Nowacki says. “They spoke a little English, but we pretty much tried to speak as much Spanish as possible. I took the subway to work every day and really felt like I was part of life in Madrid.”

Although Nowacki took a daily, two-hour intensive Spanish class at the Madrid DIPA center, he didn’t interact much with other SU students. He spent most of his time with friends he met at the solar energy lab, where they were creating the next generation of solar cells. “This was one of my first lab experiences that focused on research,” Nowacki says. “It’s certainly different working with professionals and graduate students who are much more knowledgeable than my peers. I had never done anything like this.” After work, he’d go out to dinner with coworkers or socialize. “There was always plenty to do outside of the lab—exploring the city, hanging out with friends, and traveling all over,” he says. “Because Madrid is basically in the center of the country, I visited a different area of Spain each weekend.”

One of the most striking aspects of Nowacki’s experience was the contrast between Spanish and American perceptions of the world. “Sometimes in America we feel like there’s America and that’s all there is. The rest of the world is so far away,” he says. “But living in Europe—partly because of the geography—people have a much greater sense of the world around them. I got a much better idea of what the world thinks. I came back looking at things in America differently.” Vice Chancellor Freund says internships are especially good for helping students learn to understand other people’s perspectives. “Unlike study-abroad experiences where Americans still interact quite a bit with each other, international internships force cultural immersion and lessons are learned practically through one particular job,” she says.

For Clements Internship Award recipient Sarah Young ’04, appreciating and respecting cultural beliefs that differ from her own were among the major challenges of her internship in Jamaica. “I had a lot to learn about Jamaican culture,” says Young, who used her experience as an educator with Talking With Kids About AIDS, a program in Cortland County, New York, for her internship with UNICEF’s Right to Know project in Jamaica. “As an AIDS educator, I knew what worked in my community, but it is different in Jamaica,” she says. “You can’t just use a cookie-cutter approach.”

She worked with a group of teenagers who created a short public service film about sexuality and AIDS that was aired on Jamaican television. “The kids chose what was important to them because the project was about empowering the youth,” says Young, a social work major in the College of Human Services and Health Professions and a University Class Marshal. “I could sit back, watch the teens lead themselves, and jump in when it was appropriate to offer some of my knowledge. From an observational perspective, it was really cool.”

Other times, Young played a more direct teaching role, explaining how the disease is spread and how to use condoms, and offering information that challenged many Jamaicans’ beliefs about AIDS, homosexuality, and disease. “Homosexuality is not talked about in Jamaica,” she says. “If a person who is gay or lesbian is infected with HIV, then many Jamaicans think God is punishing him or her for being homosexual. Or if a woman gets infected from heterosexual contact, it’s her fault. She is considered promiscuous.”

While Young does not agree with these beliefs, she admires the way Jamaicans use their social support network to fight illness. “When Americans get a cold, the first thing we do is go to the doctor or get some medicine,” she says. “In Jamaica, health is more spiritual. You get sick because you’re not taking care of yourself or not being positive. It’s a more holistic culture. From a social work perspective, it was interesting to see how, when Jamaicans get sick, they turn to their family, church, and social support.”

The internship experience also taught Young some basic skills in money management and living on her own. “Not only was it my first time abroad, it was my first time living by myself and being responsible for cooking and cleaning and all that kind of stuff,” says Young, who cut her trip short by a few weeks when she ran out of money. “I could have budgeted better. I could have made better choices, but I didn’t have the skills to do that. Now I do.”

Kingston, Jamaica

Courtesy of Sarah Young

Sarah Young ’04 shares a smile with her UNICEF internship supervisor’s daughters at a national park.

Traveling abroad fosters students’ independence and empowers them to explore and experience as much of a culture as they can. Last spring, during a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France, Amanda Busch ’04 interned at Le Cinéma L’Odyssée—a small, independent cinema—to supplement her classroom learning. “Interning was something I wanted to do while I was abroad,” says Busch, a magazine and psychology double major with a French minor in the Newhouse School and the College of Arts and Sciences. In addition to enriching her cultural experience, the internship provided Busch with valuable training in public relations and magazine writing and editing. She helped the historic theater produce two mini-magazines. One featured film reviews, profiles, and movie schedules and the other, La Lanterne Magique (The Magic Lantern), was about the theater’s special film series, which was part of an educational program for youths. “A highlight was helping with La Lanterne Magique,” Busch says. Each month, the children received a magazine about the featured films and the genre of the movies. “Before the show, a group of actors would perform a short skit for the children and explain the film’s premise,” she says. “I was able to help out and supervise. This internship gave me an opportunity to speak in French with the other employees about anything and everything. We would get into heated debates about politics, and the discussions were a source of French culture, too.”

Busch enjoyed her international experience so much that she remained overseas after the semester ended to travel for a month throughout Europe. Then she headed to London for a five-week internship at the BBC’s Good Food magazine, which was ideal for her because it combined her love of cooking with her interest in magazine production. Busch researched and wrote short pieces on such topics as where to find the rare gourmet Somerset cheddar cheese, what to cook in an African clay pot, and how to throw a Japanese dinner party. She also was invited to attend editorial board meetings to observe and participate in brainstorming sessions and planning. During the planning meeting for the magazine’s October and November issues, the editors asked her if she knew a good pumpkin pie recipe. “My mom happened to be coming to London to visit me, so we ended up cooking our usual family recipe in the Good Food kitchen,” she says. “It was so much fun!” She and her mother, along with their pumpkin pie recipe, were featuredin a two-page spread in the November issue.

London, England

Courtesy of Amanda Busch

Amanda Busch ’04 and Orlando Murrin, editor of Good Food, prepare to sample recipes in the magazine’s test kitchen in London.

As Busch gears up for graduation, she is confident her overseas internship experience will set her apart from other job hunters. In fact, the editors at Good Food helped start a new magazine aimed at younger, single readers and asked if she was interested in staying, or returning to London. “I have to admit, I thought about calling home and letting my parents know I wouldn’t be coming back,” she says. “I would love to return to London and work for Good Food or, even better, the new magazine.”

For Wheeler, the experience in Ghana has changed the way she envisions her future. She says she now better understands her place in a world that stretches far beyond her own community, state, and nation. Having seen the disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources in the world, she has redefined her life’s goals. “I realized how much help the villagers need and how easy it would be, with what is just a small amount of money in America, to set up a basic needs clinic in Ghana,” says Wheeler, who sent the village a large box of condoms, which are extremely difficult to buy in sub-Saharan Africa. “Another volunteer and I made a pact to go back and open a clinic when we graduate from medical school. That’s my ultimate goal right now. I want to go back so badly.”

Take me back to the contents page of this issue