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How Can You Get the Most from Your Internship Experience?

One SIS student shares her experience working an internship that is so relevant to her professional goals under a former professor of hers.

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Left to right: internship supervisor Joyce Kaufman, Beatrice Neal de Souza, and fellow intern Shannon Short (SIS/MA '22)

When Beatrice Neal de Souza, SIS/MA ’22, a current student in the International Development (ID) program with a concentration in gender, peace, and security, was looking for internships for fall 2021 , she saw an opportunity in Career Compass, SIS’s career-focused newsletter. The Institute for World Affairs (IWA) not only had an internship in her field, but also listed a familiar-looking supervisor’s name: Joyce Kaufman. Professor Kaufman, currently director of the IWA’s Women, Peace and Security Program and professor emerita of political science at Whittier College in Whittier, California, currently is an adjunct professor at SIS and had taught one of Beatrice’s SIS classes the previous spring—a class she really enjoyed.

Beatrice chose to register her internship for course credit. We talked with her to learn what it is like to work in an internship that is so relevant to her professional goals under a former professor of hers. We also discussed what she has learned by taking the course alongside the internship.

Finding a Niche and Filling a Need

When Beatrice applied, she found that she felt a greater sense of confidence because Professor Kaufman already knew her and the work of which she was capable: “When I applied, she had already read everything I had written for class, so I didn’t have to start my cover letter with basic things because she knew who I was. During the interview she already knew how I worked, and I knew how she worked, so we focused on more practical aspects of the internship. The interview was almost like a first project meeting.”

In the COVID-19 environment, the IWA was conducting virtual workshops with the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security; however, no one was compiling all of the information. This is where Beatrice spends her research time now: compiling information from the many Women, Peace and Security program initiatives under the oversight of Professor Kaufman. IWA started with a focus on the US and Canada, but now, they are branching out beyond North America to include research from Latin America and Europe.

Why Take Your Internship with Course Credit?

SIS graduate students have the option of taking their internships for academic credit or using the internship to fulfill a non-credit bearing requirement. In order to take the internship for credit, you must register for a class that complements and enhances the work you do during the internship.

For Beatrice, registering for credit seemed like the best option because it would allow her to carve more time out of her fall semester for the experience while also using the assignments to get the most out of her time at the IWA: “Taking the internship for credit allows me to focus more on my internship. Because I am taking it for credit, I need to answer questions every week. It is not only signing something; you need to be constantly working on it—you are creating things while talking to your supervisor.”

The course has also given Beatrice insight into the importance of focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace through its modules and readings.

“Understanding how diversity and inclusion play into our conversations at work and with people who are different than you is key to having constructive conversations,” she says.

As a Brazilian-American student who spent most of her life in Brazil, Beatrice understands American work culture was something very important to her. And she believes that a nuanced perception of those different cultural expectations matters at work: “Understanding how different cultures interact in the workplace, I see that what people do in different workplaces and work cultures is very different. And I see how backgrounds change things.”

The internship course content exposes students to research showing that complex problems will be better solved with diverse teams that are better equipped to identify creative solutions. This information helps students understand both how and why diversity at work is a benefit.

Reflecting on the necessity of including diverse perspectives in the workplace, Beatrice comments, “There is no one solution to any problem; the only way to figure it out is by talking to people.”

Tips and Advice

Beatrice’s first piece of advice hearkens back to her own experience: “Always look at the SIS Career Compass emails! I got this and my previous internship through the Career Compass.”

At first, she was shocked to see how early some of the internship deadlines were. It also is important to apply early to give yourself the best advantage.

Looking more closely at the application process, Beatrice believes in casting a wide net: “Apply to things even if you do not necessarily think that they are what you are focusing on. You never know what you are going to like.”

Beatrice also shared some advice she got from a previous mentor when it comes to reaching out to individuals in the professional world as a student: “If you are writing a paper about a topic that you find interesting or that you really like, find a person in an organization that specializes in this and email them. You can open by saying you are writing a paper on the topic of their specialty and would love to ask them you some questions; that way, it is not just you asking for an informational interview.”

Finally, for international students, Beatrice knows first-hand the challenges that can come with applying and navigating the field. She believes that international students can bring a unique perspective from which companies and organizations will greatly benefit: “You feel like you are working 20% harder to overcome the cultural barriers, but if you keep at it and find a person in your internship that you can talk to or ask questions, it can make your experience that much better. And things that might seem obvious to you, because you know it from your home country, might not be obvious to others in the company, so remember that you bring a unique and necessary input.”