“You’re a college senior? Tell me about your internship. . . “ This question is one I’ve come to dread. I think it’s because I watch the news too frequently. I hear the horror stories, about the recent college graduates struggling to find work, about the endless chain of unpaid internships. I am a college senior, one semester away from entering the job market, just four months away from becoming a citizen of “the real world.” I feel as if I’m mounted on a precipice, swaying back and forth, eager to remain atop the cliff, but secretly curious about what I might find should I take that metaphorical leap into the waters of the unknown. Perhaps I’ll like what I find, but what if I don’t? It’s the what if that concerns me.
You would think that I’ve lived a very sheltered existence, that a lack of work experience feeds my temerity. I don’t think this is true, though. Well, I don’t think it’s entirely true. Over the last few years, I’ve had a steady stream of internships. I’ve gained some skills, some incredibly valuable in the workplace (like writing press releases and event planning), others much less so (like Chinese calligraphy and sustainable farming). I’ve also studied a fair amount of languages—Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and Lithuanian.
Most recently, I worked as an intern in the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania. I’ll be honest with you here: I’m not sure if there is a right way to discuss an internship experience. I guess this is because I don’t know what people want to know. About how to get it in the first place? About the duties? About the expectations? So, I’m just going to write what comes to mind.
Before interning with the U.S. Department of State, I had very little office experience. I didn’t know how to operate a copy/fax machine or a paper shredder, and I didn’t know how to perform a mail merge. I felt uncomfortable in my business attire, almost like I was wearing a Halloween costume to work each morning. And the networking events left me with blanched skin, scarlet cheeks, and clammy hands. Internships, I learned, offer a culture shock of their variety.
I should tell you now that my father is a construction worker and my mother a personal advocate. In other words, I didn’t really know what to expect from an office environment, much less a multilingual, multicultural embassy. I don’t think I will ever forget receiving my first email in Lithuanian. “Really,” I thought. “Am I supposed to understand this?” And, at that time, I certainly didn’t understand. But as time passed so too did my Lithuanian language skills. As I became more and more comfortable with the administrative work, I also became more and more comfortable with the language and culture.
Though my duties at first were predominantly clerical (shredding papers, organizing files, data entry), they became increasingly more substantial each week. By the end of my internship, I had led two social media campaigns, assisted with the planning of two digital video conferences, acted as a deputy liaison between more than ten embassy grantees and arts envoys, assisted in writing more than four speeches, and delivered more than fifteen public presentations on behalf of the embassy.
I began this entry by confessing my internship concerns. Although I do feel that I grew exponentially during my four months in Lithuania, I also know that it wasn’t exclusively in the professional sense. I learned a great deal about myself, about my strengths and weaknesses, and about my preferences. What activities do I actually enjoy doing? What do I want in a career? The classroom provides us with theoretical knowledge. The information learned is essential, but also rather limited. Internships, on the other hand, are equally educative; they’re also experiential. And for success in any career, firsthand knowledge is an absolute necessity (or so I’ve been told, and so I am learning). So, perhaps I had a flawed way of thinking in my opening. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much about whether I have an internship, or whether I’ll find a job immediately after graduation. Maybe I should just embrace my reality, continue to try new things, delve into “new worlds,” and allow my skills and experiences to speak for themselves. After all, it’s worked out pretty well for me so far.