A world of opportunities

Thanks to more than 200 internships available through the Faculty of Arts, undergraduates are taking their education beyond the classroom and often far beyond the campus.

by Andrew Mullins

Political science student Ariana Collas completed a
Faculty of Arts internship in Hyderabad, India

They may be the “born digital” generation, glued to their laptops, conversing by text message, unfazed by electronic course packs, e-libraries and whatever else the online world might throw at them. But many of today’s students are keen to pursue decidedly non-virtual learning—on the ground, in the field, getting their hands dirty through internships. And thanks to a thriving internship program in the Faculty of Arts, dozens of McGill students are getting the opportunity to do just that each year.

And notwithstanding the occasional internship horror story in the media, you are not likely to find McGill interns walking the boss’s dachshunds or being sent to the store for probiotic yogurt. Internships are taking students into city museums, corporate office towers, community organizations, and to locations around the world: a TV newsroom in New York, a literary publisher in Toronto, the heart of the business world in Hong Kong, or an advocacy network for indigenous peoples in Africa.

The educational payoff for students can be considerable. Political science student Ariana Collas spent three months in an India-based internship this summer. “I came out of it learning so much more than I’d expected.” It’s a near-universal response among the faculty’s interns.

That’s no surprise to Dean of Arts Christopher Manfredi, a long-time proponent of the program. “Internships provide valuable opportunities for arts students to apply the skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom to real-world problems,” he explains. “They also connect students to a network of former interns that can help them navigate life after McGill.”

Anne Turner, BA’81, has led the program as the arts internship manager since its inception in 2002. She guides students through the often complex and highly competitive process of landing coveted spots, from working at Le Devoir newspaper in Montreal to the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“Over the past 10 years, the word ‘internship’ has become more important,” she says. “Employers are looking to see if you’ve had experience, and this is one of the ways that you can get experience in the field.”

It’s not for everyone, Turner emphasizes. Students prepare throughout the year to do a three-month summer internship, typically in their second or third year. The workload is substantial: searching and applying for the right internship, preparing for interviews, taking preliminary training, as well as health and safety workshops for those who are heading off to foreign lands—all while maintaining a full slate of courses.

And while those who intern in Montreal or Toronto won’t suffer from culture shock, interns travelling to developing countries often have their eyes opened wide to just how comfortable their lives are back home. Climate, poverty, cultural differences and basics like food can all be a challenge. “After a while you just don’t want to eat another curry or rice in your life,” Collas confessed of her stay in India, despite being captivated by the country and its people.

It’s important that the students be returning to McGill after their internships as well, rather than graduating, says Turner, “so that they have to give back and speak to McGill students and faculty about their experience. Everyone benefits, not just the intern, but the student the following year who then has a mentor.”

The program has found enthusiastic support from alumni, who fund students through the Faculty of Arts Internship Awards, which defray some of the travel and other costs. Nine students were supported by the alumni-sponsored awards in 2004, and by 2012 the number had climbed to 83. While Turner insists as a rule that interns working in the private sector be paid, many NGOs cannot offer a salary, she explains. “A small organization in Ghana may be paying their own staff members $25 a week.”

Outside the comfort zone

Collas, a New Yorker, is one of the faculty’s 83 award recipients. She interned in Hyderabad, India, with WaterHealth International, a company that purifies local water and sells it at an affordable price, teaching the communities in which its plants are based about safe water practices, while at the same time providing local jobs. After a three-day training program of PowerPoint presentations and “information overload,” says Collas, they visited a plant and the reality of providing clean water to the people hit home for her.

“We were there for just 30 minutes, but we observed so many customers coming with their kids, picking up water, speaking with the plant operator, and just seeing in front of me the people who will benefit from the services—that was a really great moment for me.”

Collas was on unfamiliar ground creating training programs in water health education. “I had just been trained myself and the next week I’m assessing the training needs of employees. So there were a lot of challenges.”

Art history student Evgeniya Makarova

Her experience from an earlier internship in Kosovo dealing with energy and environmental policy—also unfamiliar turf—helped her adapt quickly. “I already knew from that experience that going into something where you don’t necessarily have a background may be even more valuable than doing something within your comfort zone, because it opens up a whole new world to you.”

Art history student Evgeniya Makarova interned in Moscow at the State Tretyakov Gallery, the national treasury of Russian fine art and one of the world’s great museums. A Montrealer originally from Moscow, Makarova returned to the Russian capital to work with the curatorial staff in the late 19th and early 20th century painting department. Her biggest project was assisting the main curator of an exposition dedicated to the Russian painter Aleksandr Golovin that will open in 2014.

“The working climate was amazing,” says Makarova, whose long hours learning the responsibilities of museum workers were balanced by lengthy conversations with her colleagues over tea from a Russian samovar. “I was flattered by how readily they delegated very significant tasks to an intern. I felt privileged and grateful to be able to contribute to the common cause of such a huge project as starting an exhibition.”

Makarova did so well, she was offered a position at the museum that she had to turn down in order to complete her studies. There may be opportunity to return, but regardless, the internship has made an impact as she is now considering pursuing curatorial studies after she graduates from McGill. “This only crossed my mind after doing my internship. I had never thought of taking this path.”

Economics student Kevin Coles’s internship with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong had an equally transformative effect on him. Working on special projects with the executive director, Coles was put in charge of the chamber’s magazine, helped organize a governance review, and worked closely with the executive committee. Halfway through his internship, the executive director left the chamber and Coles was left with a lot of loose ends and unexpected responsibilities.

“It was difficult,” he says, “but it was also great experience being able to step up and put in the effort to ultimately make it work.”

Like Makarova, Coles was impressed at how he was treated as a valued contributor. “I was interacting with some very high profile people in Hong Kong. So aside from networking opportunities, it was very interesting and rewarding to hear their advice and feel comfortable speaking to people in those positions.

“I think any career that I pursue will be internationally focused in some way,” says the Toronto native, “whether it is in China specifically, Asia or another part of the world. There’s so much going on that we don’t see while we’re here in Canada. We’re very developed, wealthy, but still a very small part of what’s going on. I think that is the one thing that this internship has driven home for me.”

Becoming a leader


Political science student Tukeni Obasi

Associate professor of sociology Kate Fallon is one of a growing number of faculty members who are supervising internship students—they can choose to write a research paper based on their internship for credit—and are helping to build networks between McGill and host organizations. Doing fieldwork in Ghana, Fallon was in contact with several NGOs that she thought might benefit from the support interns can bring. They agreed and soon a small hub for McGill internships was established in the West African country.

Fallon praises the program for giving students a glimpse of their possible future. “It’s a window into what may be expected and might actually shape the course of their professional trajectory.”

One of the NGOs she brought on board was the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE), an organization based in Accra that provides services to victims of domestic violence and oversees programs that are empowering women in Ghana. It was with WISE that Tukeni Obasi, a political science student originally from Lagos, Nigeria, did her internship. Her work began at a Liberian refugee camp about to be shut by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. “The refugees were on the verge of losing their status and were faced with the option of returning to Liberia or integrating into Ghanaian society,” explains Obasi.

Obasi taught business management and bookkeeping to some 50 aspiring women entrepreneurs living in the camp. She also worked on outreach programs in churches and schools, “bringing up the issue of domestic violence and creating a space for people to talk about the issues themselves.”

Perhaps the most inspiring moments for her came from working with the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa, “a program for young African women to learn about political participation, economic justice and different things to help them become better leaders in their communities.” Obasi recalls “coming back after Moremi being so motivated, and thinking, ‘I am a leader, I can do so much with my life.’”

The smartest people in the world

Sean Stefanik, BA’11, built on a previous public health internship experience at an HIV clinic in Nairobi to land one of the most prestigious placements available to young university graduates, becoming McGill’s first Pascale International Fellow at the William J. Clinton Foundation. The $6,000 internship at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York is funded by McGill alumnus James Pascale, BA’80, and his brother, Joseph.

CGI brings together heads of state, CEOs, NGO directors and others to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems. Stefanik helped members pool their expertise and resources in order to have a bigger impact in areas such as public health and addressing specific crises like the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. He was also part of the team preparing for CGI’s annual meeting, a major international event with a speaker and panelist list that was a who’s who of politicians, activists, journalists and public and private sector leaders: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Desmond Tutu, Stephen Lewis, Charlie Rose, Wolf Blitzer and many others.

“It was a really rewarding experience,” says Stefanik, “not only because you get to see all those people, but you also get to sit in on the stuff that isn’t open to the media. It’s really enlightening to hear some of the smartest people in the world talking about issues that everyone is facing in a way that you don’t get to see when you’re reading published reports or articles.”

The success of the Arts internship program—growing from a handful of interns in 2002 to 240 this year—has spurred the faculty to find new ways for undergraduate students to broaden their education beyond the classroom. Two years ago, they created the Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Awards program, in which students gain insight into the next stage of scholarship by assisting McGill professors in their research over the summer.

“We are in the early design stages of adding a third element,” says Dean Manfredi, “that will focus on private sector internships and mentoring opportunities in partnership with arts alumni who have built successful careers in that sector, especially through entrepreneurial activity.”

Internship alumni are now managing their own LinkedIn group, expanding networking opportunities even further, says Turner. “People can share jobs, internships, information, and get together with past interns.” And perhaps it also offers a chance to engage in a little nostalgia as they reflect on the impact those three months had.

As Kevin Coles explains, “They are experiences that I will remember and cherish just as much as any class or other experience at McGill. Looking back, it’s a big part of the McGill experience for me.”

Andrew Mullins is a Montreal-based freelance writer, editor and translator, and the former associate editor of the McGill News.


Real World 101

Getting a taste of the professional working world has long been a vital component in the education of many McGill undergraduates. Students pursuing teaching degrees in the Faculty of Education, for instance, spend at least 700 hours in elementary or high schools, honing their skills in a classroom filled with students of their own. Undergraduates in the Faculties of Dentistry and Medicine take part in a clerkship process, learning to provide care to patients under the watchful eye of seasoned supervisors.

At Macdonald Campus, students majoring in dietetics spend 40 weeks working in “stages” that offer hands-on experience in a variety of professional settings. Similarly, social work students take part in field placements, while students in the Faculty of Engineering’s mining engineering co-op program experience four co-op work terms.

In recent years, other faculties and departments have focused on expanding the internship opportunities available to their students.

The Macdonald Campus Internship Office, established in 2009, offers students from different programs in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences the chance to gain work experience in fields related to their studies. While most of the internships take place in or near Montreal, some have involved settings as far-off as France, Ghana, Germany, Pakistan and the Netherlands.

Students in the Faculty of Law can earn credits while contributing to the work done at such organizations as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa through programs like the International Human Rights Internship Program and the International Judicial Clerkship Program.

The Faculty of Science’s internship program, which began in 2009, offers two options. The Industrial Practicum (IP) involves a paid internship for four months. It doesn’t count for credit, but if a student completes two IPs, her participation in the internship program will be noted on her transcript. The Internship Year in Science offers paid internships that last for eight, 12 or 16 months. Once completed, these internships are registered on transcripts as being part of the student’s academic program. Interns from the Faculty of Science have worked for the Canadian Space Agency, Ubisoft, the National Research Council, Microsoft, Bombardier and several other companies and organizations.

Daniel McCabe, BA'89

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