For students of MTSU, travel to practically any country in the world is possible thanks to the university’s incredible Office of Education Abroad department. Boasting the support of four separate provider programs, the office offers a variety of destinations on each of six of Earth’s continents. (If you wanted to make it to Antarctica, you may have a little more trouble).
But if your primary interests in study abroad have most to do with making connections and establishing experience in other parts of the world, now a new option is available to you: virtual internships.
The virtual international internship program offered by the Office of Education Abroad is an opportunity through the same four providers who supply the programs for physically traveling abroad.
MTSU first began offering virtual internships for the spring of 2021. Emily McAnally, Advisor in the Office of Education Abroad, said that neither she nor her office director was sure what to make of the program at first. But the global pandemic turned out to be a good motivation to explore alternatives for students unable to travel.
“We attended a few of the trainings and workshops that the providers hosted to kind of explain,” she said. This led to the realization of the immense potential of such a resource.
“We realized it’s not study abroad, and it’s not trying to be study abroad; it is very much a different group of students that they are targeting with this type of experience. It’s definitely more along the lines of, you know, developing those cultural competency skills, remote work skills… it’s more for career readiness and less study abroad in the traditional sense.”
The information gathering sessions took place over the summer of 2020, and in the fall, the dissemination of knowledge to potentially interested students began.
For MTSU student Maria Hite, researching travel abroad options during the summer of restricted travel led to the discovery of the program.
“I saw this stuff on their website, and I was like, ‘This is interesting,’” she said.
For student Tanya Gonzalez, it was an email.
“[Emily McAnally] sent me an email about… some virtual internships in which graduate students can also participate. Even if you cannot study abroad, you can take this virtual internship. And I was like ‘Ah! This is perfect! This is what I need!’”
Even word of mouth was an effective method of recruitment, as it was for student global ambassador Hannah Solima.
Interested students can choose between several options for internship durations, between 16-weeks, 8-weeks, and even 4-weeks.
Unlike traditional study abroad programs, in which most students are only enrolled in the study abroad program for the duration of travel, international internships can be paired with a semester of MTSU classes.
Of course, before the whole international experience begins, there is an application to be faced.
“The application process is more intensive with these because you do have to submit a resume, whereas with a normal study abroad program you don’t,” McAnally explained.“The GPA is also higher for the internships. It’s a 3.0 for most of them, whereas for studying abroad it’s usually like a 2.0 or a 2.5, depending on the length of the program. So, yeah, they are a little more strenuous… or, competitive.”
The application process is one that inspired the same advice from every student interviewed: don’t procrastinate. Every interviewee said she’d have started working on the application earlier if given the chance to do anything differently.
Once beyond the initial application, students receive critiques from an advisor within their provider programs about things like resume construction.
Not only does the application involve submission of paperwork reflecting workplace and scholastic proficiency, but there is also a series of interviews.
“Something I didn’t know – when I got interviewed, I felt like I had to sell myself, which you definitely should do in your interview, but a lot of them were actually trying to – the organizations – were trying to get you on board,” said Solima.
“So, they would tell you about their organization, what you’d be doing, and then at the end I actually got to choose the organization,” she said.
Curious if you’d be an ideal candidate for these programs?
There were several qualities in common that those with experience would recommend. Adaptability, communication skills, and foreign cultural interests are top of the list. Another big thing? Time management.
Students in the program work with other students and points of contact from a vast array of time zones. Calculating and adjusting to the time zone differences has proven to be a fun challenge for participants. Time management is essential, and eases the process of coordination.
There is also a degree of cultural preparation involved with an international internship.
None of the students are forced to go into a new environment cold, without cultural context.
MTSU hosts seminars about the countries with which students will be working, once they have chosen their specific internships, and so will the providers.
“My provider program did a lot of different seminars, so before we started, they kind of told us what to expect, what kind of things that you should work on in your internship for professionalism, and different things of that nature,” said Solima.
Moreover, the peers within these programs may prove to be connection points of just as much value as the authority figures within the internship companies themselves.
For Hite, whose international internship was a psychology program based in Vietnam, it was her primary task to collect resources from different countries to create an inter-connected network of mental health professionals. In her down time, she met with peers and expanded her cultural knowledge, as well as swapped information about her own background.
“I’ve been able to speak with people from Australia, and the U.K. But I think that one of my favorite parts has been… [the interactions] with the students in Vietnam. We’ve been able to get together and have cultural sessions, and we’d talk about different topics every other week,” she said.
“We’ve talked about family, and work culture, and different holidays, because we had the Vietnamese New Year, which is called Tết, and so we were able to have sort of this special Zoom meeting for that, and learn about some of its traditions,” said Hite.
“I learned a lot about the culture in Vietnam but, also, I got to analyze the culture in the U.S. I was able to sort of learn about my own culture, and sort of the different facets of it. And, talking to the different U.S. students, how some of the experiences can be very different even within the U.S.,” she said.
“There are differences, and those are interesting, but I think one of the most interesting parts is the similarities between different cultures,” Hite added.
These connection points are ones which have been forged in a lasting, meaningful way.
“We’re all still on a group chat together… and they were like, ‘If you ever come to Vietnam, you’ll have to come and visit!” she said.
Solima’s experience with a South African NGO was similar in that respect.
“Everyone had each other’s numbers; we had a GroupMe going. It was really – it was professional, but it was also informal. They were so friendly and wanted to get to know you,” Solima said.
“It really felt like a family, and that was the coolest part, coming in as an intern for only eight weeks and I still got that impression, was really quite extraordinary. That was my favorite part. And that’s why I know if I go to South Africa, I can meet up with them. Because that’s how close that we got, even in eight weeks,” she said.
Not only the connection points, but also the skills accumulated over the weeks of participation have proven to be entirely unique and invaluable.
According to Solima in a post on MTSU’s intern takeover Instagram event, traditional internships may sometimes relegate interns to simple tasks like coffee runs and penning thank-you notes on behalf of their employees. But with this program, the work is much more consistently meaningful.
“It’s been really, really awesome just to hear from their experiences how they gained a lot of those job skills that you wouldn’t be able to do just doing a study abroad program,” McAnally said.
Overall, the general consensus is overwhelmingly positive.
“I think this process has been very effectively organized by the department of study abroad on campus. They have been very helpful,” said Gonzalez.
“I do think that other students should apply for this kind of opportunity, because it’s like once in a lifetime. Academically, it is,” she added.
The international internships program is available through the Office of Education Abroad office.
Though its introduction was inspired by the necessities of the global pandemic, it seems that it is here to stay. The kinds of skills and experiences gained are invaluable in a world of increased international cooperation and digital skills.
“There’s going to be more job opportunities for work from home. So, students will need that experience. It’s not the same as work from somewhere else. This is a really great opportunity, and I’m really grateful and privileged for being a part of it,” said Gonzalez.
Author Darby McCarthy is currently an undergraduate student at MTSU, majoring in Journalism in the College of Media and Entertainment.