Global internship program takes liberal arts into the workplace

By Shannan Palma | Nov. 16, 2016

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As one of 20 students in the first cohort of Emory's new global internship program, Yasmeen Wermers traveled to Singapore over the summer to work at a startup incubator in the tech district.

In fall of 2015, the Office of International and Summer Programs (OISP) in Emory College of Arts and Sciences began recruiting applicants for a new global internship program placing students with companies in Toronto, Hong Kong and Singapore for a summer of intense work and learning.

Yasmeen Wermers was a sophomore at Oxford College when she learned of the program. A math and economics major already interested in a career with global impact, she leapt at the opportunity to gain work experience in another country and was eventually placed at a start-up incubator in the heart of the tech startup district in Singapore.

She wasn’t the only one. OISP received far more applications for the pilot program than they’d expected. Due to the independent nature of this kind of experience abroad, administrators set high academic standards and considered evidence of the students’ maturity. After a lengthy application and review process, accepted students were interviewed and hired by the companies themselves.

Twenty students comprised the summer 2016 pilot cohort. Though scattered in their work placements, they all shared the experience of taking an online course critically analyzing workplace structures and leadership styles, how to accommodate varying generational expectations around professionalism, and how to interact appropriately with their bosses or deal with ethical conflicts that might arise.

“We talk about [making connections] in terms of teaching students to be adaptable and flexible and what a liberal arts education empowers you to do,” notes Dana Tottenham, who manages the program. “But what’s really evident, when you talk to the students and you hear their experiences of navigating the global workplace, these liberal arts skills come alive. It’s just that students have rarely had a chance to apply them in this particular context.

“One of our goals is to help create a bridge between the academic experience on campus with industry sectors in global cities," Tottenham explains. "Through the online course, we are connecting the curriculum to the longer term goals that the students have of applying their education in an experiential way.”

 After her summer in Singapore, Wermers agrees. “I was able to interact really well with both generations in my workplace because of the online course,” she says. “In a vertical structure, when I was interacting with the CEO — because he was 60 years old and he worked in finance for most of his life — I knew what he was used to. And he was pretty impressed with how I did my tasks because I was efficient. I wrote very formal emails to him. I cc’d him on everything, and I gave him the kind of respect that a CEO should have, that someone above me should have.

"I knew that in a horizontal structure, we’re all kind of equal. Even though you’re the boss, you know, I’m still treating you as if you were a regular coworker," she says. "But the CEO definitely knew that I gave him [role-appropriate] respect. I wouldn’t have gotten that if I hadn’t taken the online course.”

Combining work experience with travel abroad

Jake Lynch, an economics major, interned for at a micro-consulting firm in Hong Kong. Now a senior, he is applying for jobs and still making use of his final assignment — a portfolio containing an example of a past project, a resume and a cover letter, among other things.

“At the time I didn’t realize how important that was, but to have that portfolio just in a folder on my computer makes it so much easier to deliver to companies when they’re asking for it when I’m applying.”

As a junior, the proximity of graduation and his impending job search almost made Lynch miss out on the opportunity to study abroad. He wanted the experience, but was concerned about losing out on his last summer to gain additional work skills.

The global internship program complements existing study abroad programs while providing something new. It’s an opportunity designed for students like Lynch who are interested in study abroad, but prioritize internships, or for students who have studied abroad before and want a new kind of signature experience.

The program has also proven very attractive to international students wanting a second layer. As such, the global internship program attracts a more diverse group of students than traditional study abroad — greater numbers of international students and students of color, more men than women.

Becoming global citizens

Diversification has been a longstanding point of pride for Emory College’s international programs, which over the years have expanded in scope from the more traditional language and culture programs in Western Europe to include programs across the world and topics that appeal to students majoring in the social sciences or in fields such as chemistry or biology.

Since becoming associate dean for international and summer programs in 2013, Sally Gouzoules has been looking for the next horizon. Gouzoules served as co-chair of the curriculum committee on the task force to create Emory’s global strategy, launched in 2015, which emphasizes the importance of equipping students to meet the opportunities and challenges of an increasingly interconnected world, particularly through experiential education.

"What I wanted to think about was how we appeal to students who want opportunities to go out into the world and to become, essentially, a global citizen in ways that in their minds connect more directly to career goals and plans, not simply what they’re studying on campus now, but how they would like to think of where their career is going to take them in the world," she says.

Tottenham is particularly excited about the way the internships help students integrate more seamlessly into local culture and develop professional networks invested in their future success.

“In Singapore, our students organized a Fourth of July barbeque and invited local interns to join them. Students return home with new friends to follow on social media, enhanced skills to list on their resumes and professional references to call upon," she says.

"When we design study abroad programs, we aspire to incorporate true cross-cultural engagement. The best practices that we intend to build into the structure of our programs are happening on the ground with global internships because of the nature of the networks and relationships that students are creating.”

Both Lynch and Wermers cite these networks as the most life-changing part of their internship experience. Their former colleagues still keep in touch and offer friendship and career advice.

Expanding for this summer

In the second year of the program, students will have the additional opportunity of job placements in Dublin, Ireland, or Boston, Massachusetts — the latter aimed at international students, as students must intern in a global city outside of their home country.

The second year cohort will take a new Emory course developed in conjunction with Susan Tamasi, professor of pedagogy and director of the program in linguistics. The online course entitled “Intercultural Discourse for Global Internships” introduces students to studies in intercultural communication, occupational sociology and professional discourse.

Using various methods, such as ethnography and linguistic landscape, students will examine both the host city and the internship organization as field sites. And that’s still just the beginning.

“An exciting thing that we will be doing going forward is connecting directly to the language departments,” says Gouzoules. “We’ve already had conversations with most of the language departments about, in the future, having additional internship sites where their majors or students who have already had significant study abroad experience and are, essentially, fluent language speakers, will be able to do internships not in English, but in that other language.

“That’s the direction we intend to build — to have tracks for people that have very specific needs. And this allows us to deepen and really connect students who have a lot of international experience and to help them take this next step into being able to, in their careers, use this.”