(The Humanitarian Social Network)
As many of us prepare for summer session, this is the busiest time for student internships in international development and aid. Whether we are a current aid worker, future aid worker, or educator of either, many of us have had our share of experiences with internship programs. So I'd love to hear some of the best and worst practices of internship programs that people have come across in their experience.
This includes aspects of placement, supervision, activities, outcomes, partnerships, training, etc. etc.
Also, for those of you that are searching for an internship or an intern, here is a space dedicated to posting openings.
I'm very lucky to have begun a 6 month part-time internship while I'm still in college studying for my undergrad. It's for a small Irish branch of an international environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth. My job is to coordinate the Young FoE network. I've been there 3 weeks, and so far I've had to organise an AGM, contact members and encourage them to come, promote the event in Irish colleges, and complete a funding application. I've been helped every step of the way by the Policy and Campaigns manager of the 'big' FoE. Today I had my first staff meeting and I got to hear what the 3 fulltime staff members are working on - a real insight into the world of environmental campaigning and especially climate change lobbying. For me, this is as good as it gets for an internship - you are given tasks of real responsibility, and someone is there to guide you when you need help.
In my degree programme there is a 6 month work placement abroad that I will be undertaking next year. Some of the returned students have worked with NGOs where they were pretty much left to their own devices, due to lack of resources or lack of enough work to do on the part of the NGO. This seems like a real pity, though some students have been resourceful enough to undertake research projects under their own steam in these situations. Even if there was a silver lining to those situations, it seems to me that the point of an internship is for the student to be able to gain a real insight into the world of NGOs, to be able to 'shadow' a person of responsibility in the organisation, and to learn how to carry out tasks themselves effectively. Anything less than this is a waste of everyone's time, and worse than that, it shows a real disrespect to students who are willing to work for free in exchange for a useful learning experience.
I am on a 12 month placement internship (9 months done) with an INGO as part of my undergraduate degree. I have been largely left to my own devices (sometimes because my nominal supervisor is very disinterested, sometimes because I don't have one, mostly because by supervisors have all been part-time). I can concur with Sian - it's a waste, both from the point of view of the intern and the org.
I've done some good and interesting things but mainly as a result of my own volition and never in a structured way. I have complained a few times, gotten awkward and faux concerned meetings before everything going back to the way it was. 1 year on the CV is fine by me but it's not been much more than that.
After a combined two years (!) un(der)paid internships with international organisations (governmental and non-governmental), I am still chasing that first paid job. While I do agree that it is important to do your dues in a highly competitive field in order to gain work experience and learn the ropes in often complex and fast-paced environments, I have unsurprisingly become more cynical towards a system that keeps people in 'serial internships' or employers who even discriminate against you for having 'too many' internships because no-one would hire you and you were put in a position where you would rather accept another internship than sit at home and do nothing. I actually did enjoy my first two internships very much.
My first was at a human rights organisation and we had organisational induction days, could always join any in-house trainings and were paid travel and lunch. Although the internship was not too structured as such but allowed flexibility, we were invited to submit evals of our internship after the first month to the intern coordinator in order to make sure we were getting out if it what we wanted and were happy with the kinds of tasks we were given. They even organised the occasional trip for interns and an intranet space for them. The work was varied and my supervisor and I (all there was to our 'team') worked really well together and she gave me the opportunity to really do substantial research (I'm kind of a geek so I really loved that), she really valued my input and I hardly ever had to do things like filing or printing. She was a real mentor. I suppose that by the end of my time there (I had started FT in summer and continued PT for almost a year in total), I was substituting a real employee. When I had to leave due to exams and financial reasons, she even tried to get me hired but for reasons not explained to me, HR said no.
My second internship was in forced migration and most interns were directly involved in refugee case management (because there was little else to do within the organisation). Depending on which department you were in you could either be screamed at and given menial and stressful tasks you would be in trouble for if you did not do them right because there was a toxic team dynamic - or you could work with great people who understood that you were there for an educational experience and were very patient with you, gave you proper work and went to lunch together (sometimes inviting you!). I was not a local citizen so I could not get hired.
In my third and most recent and hopefully last internship, I was mainly operating a copying machine, hand-wrote 40 Christmas cards, carried conference gear and most importantly (!) was re-organising a library (!). Things which every high school student without knowledge of the organisation's specific subject matter could do. I got paid a little allowance which was better than no income, so I accepted. After six months there, I still don't know what the other departments are doing in their day-to-day work really. I guess that says everything. Also, we did not get to actually shadow our colleagues because they were in a different room half-way through the office, so there was this distinction between interns and permanent staff. I kept asking for more substantial work and repeating myself that I have had more responsibility in previous internships but they said that there wasn't anything an intern could be entrusted with (liability-wise) or that they did not want to 'abuse' interns. Interestingly, interns in some other departments who happened to be working unpaid, did more substantial and meaningful tasks. In the end, I got passed up for promotion for the other intern who came from an economics background, had less than half the work experience I had (and was perhaps because of that, more compliant with menial tasks and 'fit better into the team') and has never applied for ANY permanent job before.
How many internships does one have to do before 'qualifying' to be paid for an entry-level job?!
My friend at World Vision US mentioned that they have a pretty good and established internship program.
- Internships are paid! Getting paid not only means that you have some more money in the bank but also notch above the unpaid intern in terms of status as well.
- Internships have often led to a second full-time job.
- Internships are required to be action/program oriented so you don't just end up with all admin work.
The internships are a bit competitive but again they can often lead to second jobs if they excel at the internship. There are a few application deadlines throughout the year. There are usually two rounds to the application process: 1) screening of resumes, 2) a couple of interviews with the group and possibly a writing sample.
You can find more info here: http://www.worldvision.org/content.nsf/about/internships
"Who you are:
You are a committed Christian excited at the prospect of using the unique gifts and talents God has given you to help children and families in need. All World Vision U.S. interns must agree to and accept our Statement of Faith and/or the Apostles' Creed."
I'm afraid that rules me out!
Good to point that out, Sian. Many see this requirement as a
controversial characteristic of faith-based organizations and an
eliminating factor in terms of places they'd like to be employed.
Hmmm it's a funny one - I do some volunteering for the Society of St Vincent de Paul, who are very much faith-based, but they don't require that either their volunteers or their clients share the same faith. Is it fair to require new interns to share religious views?
Thanks for all the responses. Good to hear the variety of experiences and helps future interns know what to expect.
Having an orientation from the intern from the organization can help the intern transition in and more quickly acclimate to their new role.
Of course being left to your own devices is not something new that is heard in internship evaluations. We try to help our students adapt to different supervisory styles but a common complaint from students is lack of structure or attention. But I also found in speaking to many supervisors that often the busiest ones want the interns to speak up and tell them when they need some attention, otherwise they can get lost in the mix of things. But this can be hard for students to do as well for a variety of reasons.
**Also, for organizations that have internships but don't want to remain anonymous, just message me with the info and I'll post for you.