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Student Success Story

Students Intern Virtually While Abroad

By Kara Dimitriou

Maura Farrell

Maura Farrell, SIS/BA ‘13, pictured here in India, is currently researching the Indian Diaspora through an eInternship with the U.S. Department of State.

Many students at American University (AU) will face a tough decision of whether to gain international experience by studying abroad or to stay in Washington, D.C., to hold a prestigious internship. But one increasingly popular U.S. Department of State program allows students to have it both ways.

Internet-based internships, otherwise known as eInternships, have grown significantly at the U.S. Department of State since the program was piloted in 2009 with approximately 50 summer interns. Today, the Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) fills 209 eIntern positions at 61 overseas posts, 29 domestic offices, and 11 UNESCO commissions.

“Even though the student does not physically come into the office, the State Department can still benefit from the energy, fresh ideas, unique perspectives, and specific skills U.S. college students can offer,” says Bridget Roddy, program manager. “An eInternship allows flexibility for students to determine when and where they want to work. Not all students have the time… for an in-house internship.”

Allena Martin, SIS/BA ‘13, and Maura Farrell, SIS/BA ‘13, are two AU students on the forefront of this emerging trend.

While studying abroad in Rome to learn Italian, Allena Martin is putting her Spanish minor to good use through her VSFS eInternship. Building upon the State Department’s targeted outreach campaigns, Martin is making short Spanish-language videos that explain concepts in U.S. government, history, and culture during her nine-month-long position.

“I think this eInternship will give me a very different kind of experience that not a lot of students can have,” says Martin. “If I make a successful video, it may be shared with Spanish-speaking youth around the world. That would be both an amazing personal and professional experience.”

Studying abroad in London, Maura Farrell is also using her eInternship to further develop an academic interest. Farrell’s previous experience in India informed her decision to apply for a research-based internship regarding the Indian Diaspora to the U.S. More specifically, she is examining networks of community support used among Bengalis during the immigration process.

“Part of the research I am doing will include interviewing prominent Bengali-Americans like Jhumpa Lahiri and Amartya Sen, among others,” says Farrell. “These two in particular are people whom I really look up to, so I am totally psyched at the idea of being able to talk to them.”

Farrell believes that the contacts she is making through her current position may also aid her in her future academic and professional pursuits.

Martin credits Career Center advisor David Fletcher for helping her figure out how to handle the rigors of an internship while studying abroad. This was crucial, she says, since eInternships are incredibly independent and students must rely on their own abilities to complete the task assigned. That said, eInterns routinely check in with supervisors, who provide feedback and direction on their projects.

Farrell agrees. “I really like what I'm researching, so it feels like I'm building my resume while just doing a hobby,” she says.

Martin and Farrell believe that VSFS provides an invaluable option to gain professional experience with an esteemed U.S. agency while also pursuing the personal and academic benefits of studying abroad. Both encourage students to apply for the opportunity to engage in this growing phenomenon.

Francine Blume, director of experiential education at AU’s Career Center, also believes that virtual internships will play an increasingly prominent role in career development.

“With the level of digital interconnectivity we now have at our fingertips, it is inevitable that more and more employers will offer these types of opportunities,” says Blume. “The key is to find a position that develops your skills and provides mentorship so that you’re not simply working alone.”