On the Job, Abroad: Students Reflect on Virtual International Internships

For many students, summer means long, hot days and the opportunity to flex their newfound classroom skills at an internship. COVID-19 altered many summer interns’ plans, especially those who hoped to travel abroad and participate in experiences offered through the International Internship Program (IIP). However, several students were able to intern internationally in a virtual setting.

UW–Madison’s International Division spoke with four UW students who participated in remote internships across the globe: Zach Demko with RWTH Aachen in Germany, Emmett Burgos and Maysen Marolda interned with Fulbright Chile, and Mahima Bhattar with Health Access Connect in Uganda. The students discussed their work, travel aspirations, and what they’ve learned from their virtual time abroad.

IIP is offering more part-time virtual international opportunities for the fall and spring that students complete in conjunction with their classes. Search for opportunities and apply.

Cultural Engagement from Afar

Zach Demko
Zach Demko

Zach Demko, a rising senior and Psychology and French double-major, interned at RWTH Aachen, the largest technical institute in Germany. Before the shift to virtual work, Demko had plans to carry out an experiment involving brain scans and tasks that involve aggression. Remotely, he completed a meta-analysis on the topic, or a systematic review of all existing research. Another adjustment he made: Learning about German culture from thousands of miles away.

International Division: Some of the most amazing moments for student abroad happen through cultural immersion and engagement. How have you been able to get a feel for the work culture, even though you’re not on the ground in Germany?

Zach Demko: We have virtual coffee sessions where we chat with students at the institute about a specific topic each week. I’ve formed a good relationship with my buddy — we end up talking for two or three hours a week. I feel like I’ve learned about German cultural values through those conversations.

ID: What have you learned through the virtual time you’ve spent with your buddy and your coworkers?

ZD: I’ve noticed that Germans value punctuality — they say it’s better to be two minutes early than two minutes late. Also, I think people tend to have a good work-life balance, and there isn’t as much pressure to be so productive all the time. At first, I wasn’t sure what my supervisor expected of me, but everyone I work with is understanding and flexible, which has allowed me to take a summer class online and continue on with my research at UW.

ID: Have you been able to capture visual and historical culture in a similar way?

ZD: A cool thing is that right now we’ve been receiving a bunch of virtual tours of historical sites and museums. Aachen was the capital city of Charlemagne’s empire, so the cathedral contains some cool artifacts. We’ve seen virtual tours of museums in the area, as well as a nearby research center. I like learning about history, so I’ve enjoyed this type of engagement, even though it’s hard to get the full feel for a place. So many of the tours I’ve seen make me excited to visit. Pending health circumstances, the program has invited us back next summer, so I’ll be able to see all these places in person.

The Virtual Experience as a Springboard

Rising juniors Maysen Marolda and Emmett Burgos interned this summer at Fulbright Chile, an educational exchange program that sends Chilean students to the U.S. to continue their studies. Marolda, a Political Science and International Studies double-major, and Burgos, an International Studies and Economics double-major, worked on applicants’ materials and assisted with Spanish to English translation.

 International Division: An international internship is a unique opportunity that not every student pursues. How did you decide this was the path for you?

 Emmett Burgos: My travels influenced my decision to major in International Studies and even to do an international internship. My grandmother is from Ireland and my grandfather is from Ecuador, so I’ve traveled to those places a lot. I also did an exchange to Germany in high school. I think when you’ve experienced different cultures, it opens up a lot of doors and I thought that would be a positive experience to continue that in college.

Maysen Mardola
Maysen Marolda

 ID: Your job involves significant understanding of the Spanish language. How have your skills developed throughout your internship?

Maysen Marolda: When I have to translate for students, I feel like I’ve learned all the grammar and I don’t need the help of a translating service, which has been pretty cool. Next, we’re Skyping with applicants to have conversations and improve their English skills, which I think will be beneficial for me too.

ID: Having almost completed your virtual internship, have you gained any insights into Chile?

EB: It appears there is a very different culture in Chile than the U.S. especially when it comes to working habits. The mainstream work culture in the U.S. is working 40 hours per week; in Chile, it feels more flexible — you have deadlines, but the hours are less strict. I’d like to experience that in person too.

ID: Do you have plans to incorporate your Spanish skills into your post-graduate or professional options?

MM: I do. I’m considering joining the Peace Corps in Spanish speaking country.

ID: What is the next travel destination on your list?

EB: I really want to go to Spain, specifically Madrid. My dad and grandpa both talk about how great it is, and that would give me a chance to work with the Spanish skills that I have. I’m hoping to study abroad there next spring. Post-graduation I definitely want to work outside of the U.S. for a considerable amount of time before potentially coming back.

Mahima Bhattar
Mahima Bhattar

Global Health from the Bedroom Office

Mahima Bhattar, a rising senior double-majoring in Economics and Sociology, virtually interned over the summer with Health Access Connect, a non-profit that provides essential health care to Ugandans living in remote areas.

ID: What interested you about the Health Access Connect opportunity? How did you decide this was the path for you?

Mahima Bhattar: I hope to enter the field of public health and do research/data analysis after I graduate. The opportunity at Health Access Connect allowed me to gain experience in both these areas as a Monitoring and Evaluations Intern. I’m doing work and learning about an organization that is similar to the ones I hope to be working in one day. I also really wanted to learn more about public health work in different countries.

ID: Is there a particular skill or skills you developed through your internship?

MB: I was able to refine my data skills, specifically in spreadsheets and Google data studio. I also learned a lot about grant writing and effective ways of using social media as a non-profit.

ID: How have you been able to get a feel for the work culture, even though you’re not on the ground in Uganda?

MB: This is something that I found really beneficial about my work with HAC. Although I am not actually in Uganda, I am still doing work that needs to be put in the Ugandan healthcare context and doing work that is ultimately to benefit Ugandan communities. So, I can’t just go in with my knowledge of America and expect to effectively do my job. There was a learning curve of reading up on the situation on the ground and learning acronyms and terms related to health work in the country. I am now capable of understanding the ways to evaluate health access in remote areas in Uganda. I also have a better understanding of international non-profit health work. Although I am still doing all this in my room in Illinois, the cross-cultural aspect of the work is not lost. In addition, being on a team with both Ugandans and Americans allows for an opportunity to further develop cultural competency.

ID: What advice do you have for students considering virtual international internships?

MB: I think that students should assess what makes them interested in the internship. If you wanted to do an international internship because of you want to live amongst people of a different cultural and to travel around a foreign country, I would say virtual international internships may not be the best route. If your interest is the actual work you would do within the internship and you want to learn how problems get solved in various parts of the world, then virtual international internships are a fantastic opportunity to have those experiences.