Stories from students: Studying and interning overseas

Crowded airports bring stress for some, and excitement and opportunity for others. For students interning or studying abroad, they can bring the realization that life is about to change irrevocably.

While only 2.3 per cent of Canadian students participated in a study abroad opportunity last year, 86 per cent are interested in the experience, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE).

Student experiences of going abroad, whether for studies or an internship, are as diverse as the students themselves, but one common opinion shared by the students who spoke about their experience was that it challenged and changed who they were as people.

Empowering experiences, but longer studies

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Sarah Littisha Jansen is a PhD student at Carleton University studying international affairs. In the fourth year of her undergraduate degree, she went to Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo on a trip coordinated through the School of International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.

She said this experience inspired her to go to grad school because immersing herself in a new culture was empowering and encouraged her to do things she didn’t believe she was capable of doing.

“I was reluctant to do grad school because I wasn’t sure if I could do the research and writing that a thesis entails, but when I was abroad, I researched and wrote my undergraduate thesis, and was successful,” Jansen said.

Jansen isn’t alone with this experience, as two-thirds of students have said their academic path was influenced by an experience abroad, according to CBIE.

Although Jansen said going abroad is an amazing opportunity for students, she acknowledged that more can be done to make it more accessible.

“For many students, it adds an extra year onto their studies, because often the credits they do abroad don’t count towards their degree,” she said. “Universities could definitely use some structural change to remove a deterrent such as adding an extra year.”

Interning abroad isn’t all “rosy and wonderful”

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Anna Desmarais, a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton, went to Nepal for three months as a communications intern with HIMAWANTI-Nepal, an NGO focused on empowering women in the forestry industry.

The internship opportunity was run through the Center for Media and Transitional Societies at Carleton in partnership with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), according to Desmarais.

She said one of the advantages of going abroad through a program such as WUSC is that shortly after her acceptance, she received a package outlining all of the vaccines, visas, preparation, and training required before going to Nepal.

But she cautioned that “nothing can really prepare you” for an experience abroad.

“It’s not all rosy and wonderful. Some days, it was really, really hard,” Desmarais said.

“You really need to ask yourself ‘Am I right for this?’ Especially if you’re interning as opposed to studying abroad,” she added. “Here, you’re 20 years old and a student intern, so you’re at the bottom of the food chain. In Nepal, I was a 20-year-old student, and considered an expert in my field.”

She said that the level of responsibility and high expectations placed on her prompted her to do things she hadn’t thought herself capable of doing, such as producing a documentary film. She said the experience also involved 20-hour work days, six days per week, and putting her mental health at risk.

As for the internship being unpaid, Desmarais said “it seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

She said she had to work harder during the year to afford the time off, but it was feasible because the internship came with a scholarship.

Going abroad brings perspective

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Jean Pierre Niyitanga, an international student from Rwanda in his second year of a master’s in journalism at Carleton, took part in the same program as Desmarais, but went to Malawi for his internship.

He said being an international student in Canada brings a different perspective to his education.

“Learning and immersing yourself in another culture is sometimes hard, but overall a good experience,” Niyitanga said. “You learn a lot more that way, because different countries . . . do things differently, and it’s important in your learning to get multiple perspectives.”

“As for going to work in another country . . . it’s definitely an experience. You learn a lot, and I think it’s important for people to go and experience other cultures, other ways of life,” he added.

One story he said he always tells about his internship involves the language barrier he faced in Malawi.

“I had to take a taxi to work every day, and one morning, the driver didn’t have any change on him, but he didn’t tell me that until he dropped me off at the office. We had a bit of a language barrier, and so I was trying to get my money from him, but eventually he just drove off,” he said. “Later, I ran into him and somehow he recognized me, came up to me, and handed me my money. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

“Learning and immersing yourself in another culture is sometimes hard, but overall a good experience . . . It’s important in your learning to get multiple perspectives.”

—Jean Pierre Niyitanga, a second-year journalism master’s student at Carleton who went to Malawi for an internship


Graphic by Christophe Young