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By Rukmini Banerjee, Program Manager at HasNa Inc.
How It All Began
My journey within the social change ecosystem has been, in some ways, quite unique. I decided I wanted to study Conflict Resolution and work within the social sector while I was already pursuing a Master’s degree in English Literature in India. I found myself faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile my academic background with my professional aspirations. I spoke to a number of people who gave me all kinds of sage advice but there was one common thread that ran through: I had to focus on developing specific skill sets, and also narrow my interests down to one area within the broader field of Conflict Resolution. That is when I chose Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies.
Once I had decided on a specific area of specialization, I began to select my internships strategically. My first internship was with Save the Children in Kolkata, India. I worked on their ‘Street to School’ project over the summer, which gave me the opportunity to do some fieldwork with Bangladeshi refugee children and their families settled in the outskirts of the city. I came out of the experience with mixed feelings: while on the one hand I found my work very fulfilling, on the other hand I also realized that due to the sheer volume of work undertaken by a limited number of staff members, the organization was not prepared to host an intern. I often felt like I was just adding to my supervisor’s workload. However, this experience also confirmed my resolve to pursue this area of specialization.
My subsequent internships in the U.S. and in Turkey were also directly related to my specialized track. I wanted to join a graduate program that gave equal importance to the theoretical and practical aspects of peacebuilding and conflict resolution, which is why – after spending a significant amount of time researching suitable graduate programs – I chose to apply to the M.A. in Conflict Resolution program at Georgetown University. In addition to my part-time research assistantship position at Georgetown, I volunteered with USIP’s PeaceMedia project during my first year at graduate school. This taught me some very useful hard skills related to social media management and web content curation.
During my second semester in graduate school, I took a class titled ‘Introduction to Humanitarian Emergencies’ wherein for our final group assignment, we had to prepare a full-length proposal for any relief program related to food security. That is when I first learned about the E-Voucher Food Card Program (an innovative method of delivering food aid) being introduced in the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. So naturally, at the end of the second semester, when I received a fully-funded fellowship from the Conflict Resolution program to work in any country of my choice over the summer, I selected Turkey so that I could complete a 10-week internship with the Turkish Red Crescent Society. My objective was to acquire practical experience working on the E-Voucher Food Card program that they were implementing in the refugee camps in collaboration with the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
While developing a user manual for innovative methods in delivering food assistance, I also developed a keen interest in social innovation, thus leading to my next internship at Ashoka. Ashoka is one of the world’s leading global organizations supporting social entrepreneurs, and their global headquarters in Arlington, VA has an extremely well-organized internship program across all their departments. I was placed within Ashoka’s Empathy Initiative, wherein I played a wide variety of roles and worked with colleagues across various teams. Even though I joined Ashoka as a Fall intern during my second year of graduate school, my supervisor offered to extend my internship through the Spring semester, and I ended up working there for the entire academic year, right up to my graduation.
I have had the opportunity to complete a number of internships – both structured and unstructured – but there were a few lessons that applied to all my experiences:
- Going in with an open mind and an eagerness to learn: One of the biggest reasons I was able to thrive in all my internships was that I rarely ever refused or shied away from trying anything new. The whole idea of working in a new place with new colleagues and challenges is to be able to really push yourself outside your comfort zone, and acquaint yourself with all aspects of operations. So I didn’t consider any task to be beneath me, no matter how uninteresting it might have been.
- Having a plan: For any internship (and especially for an unpaid one) it is very important to ensure that the experience is mutually beneficial. I realized that if I was going to work for free, it was important to get more out of the experience than just a glowing recommendation letter (although that is important too). I went in with some personal goals – specific skills I wanted to pick up, specific projects I wanted to work on, or even people I wanted to network with, and that helped me make the most of my internship experience.
- Being a self-starter: In some instances, I found that the organization was not really prepared to host an intern, so they didn’t have allotted tasks or responsibilities for me. I found myself largely unsupervised, and it was easy to become complacent and get through the day without really accomplishing much. As I started getting bored, I realized that I would have to look for my own work. So every day I went up to each of my colleagues and asked them about the work they were doing, what was still left to be done, and if there was anything that I could help with. Soon my colleagues started trusting me with small tasks: some data entry on MS Excel, some translation work, etc., until they finally had enough faith in me to entrust me with an entire project.
By now I have transitioned from being an intern to recruiting and supervising teams of interns for my current organization. I try to be sensitive to the needs of our interns and ensure that they have something concrete to show at the end of their internship period. Everything that I have mentioned above, also applies to the supervisor. As a supervisor, it is my responsibility to ensure that the intern is getting as much out of this experience as I am from their work. I have also come to realize that the intern and the supervisor often feed off each other’s energy; so if you are low on energy and largely unmotivated by your work, it becomes very difficult to keep your intern motivated. Empathy is key here – and having been an intern not very long ago helps me slip easily into their shoes and think about what I would have liked, had I been in their place. I also try to have individual conversations with each of my interns to find out more about their areas of interest and professional goals, so that I can get them involved in projects that they would find interesting and that would be beneficial to them in the long run.
Ultimately there is no specific formula for making an internship successful; but going in with the right attitude (flexibility, humility, empathy), having a plan, and managing expectations are all definitely useful in making the most of the internship experience. I also learned from working in different countries, that cultural awareness and sensitivity is key – what might work in one context might not be that effective in a different one. In my experience, the most successful interns (and supervisors) were those who were able to transition seamlessly from one role into another and take ownership of their work – no matter how important or trivial that might be.