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Study abroad doesn’t necessarily take place in a classroom

Today, many students are gaining international experience through internships, practicums and volunteering, rather than just through credit courses.

By KAREN BIRCHARD | JUN 11 2014
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Photo by Paul Weeks.

“See everything, try everything” became Dahlia Shuhaibar’s goal when she was hired to intern at a United Nations agency in Switzerland last summer. The University of Ottawa translation student, who graduated in April, applied on a whim after a professor mentioned a vacancy for a translation intern at the Universal Postal Union in Berne.

Ms. Shuhaibar quickly learned that she couldn’t afford to rent even a tiny apartment in the Swiss city. “My pay was 2,000 francs a month (about $2,500), but rent was 1,500 francs. I found a much cheaper boarding house run by nuns and it was a great experience. I would come home late from work and they would have a hot meal waiting for me.”

On weekends she pulled out her rail pass and travelled the country, determined to see as much as she could. “I had my homesick moments because I was on my own,” recalls Ms. Shuhaibar, but she overcame them and gained self-confidence. She blogged about her experience for iStudent Canada, a website directed at Canadian students abroad as well as international students in Canada, run by the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Some students seek an international experience by taking a traditional course of study abroad, but many others like Ms. Shuhaibar are gaining valuable experiences through related activities such as internships, research opportunities, practicums and volunteering. Some of these activities have an academic component, but many do not, making them difficult to categorize and track. Nonetheless, anecdotal reports suggest the number of students seeking out these experiential learning opportunities overseas is on the rise.

Recently, several higher-education organizations have made Canadian student mobility a priority. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is developing a proposal to increase mobility and internships for Canadian university students both at home and abroad.

“Canadian employers are telling us they want students who are internationally literate – able to get on planes, to work in different languages and cultures – and that’s the motivation behind this,” says Paul Davidson, president of AUCC. “Canada is the most open country with trade relationships around the world, but we have to get many more students abroad as part of their undergraduate experience to enable them to be at their best in the 21st century.”

When it comes to students’ international experiences, there are basic questions to answer, such as “What do we consider ‘study abroad’ and are we acknowledging these non-traditional ways?” says Jennifer Humphries, vice-president, membership, public policy and communications, of CBIE. “Should we call it ‘education abroad’ instead?”

The opportunities are numerous and varied, if one knows where to look. Many Canadian science students, for example, look to Germany for the popular Research Internships in Science and Engineering (or RISE) run by the German Academic Exchange Service known as DAAD.

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“Canadians punch above their weight,” says John Paul Kleiner, acting director of the DAAD Toronto Information Centre. “The competition is continent-wide, with Canadians getting a disproportionate number” of the summer internships that send students to work in a doctoral student’s lab. The process starts with a two-week intensive language program that gives interns enough German language basics to recognize street signs, find the right train, order lunch and go shopping or sightseeing.

Johana Forero Rondon, a two-time RISE intern, says, “I always wanted to study abroad but it was difficult to match up credit courses.” She was in her third year of biomedical and mechanical engineering at Carleton University when she discovered the program. Interns are supplied with accommodation and receive a modest stipend that allows them to travel on weekends; they also get some help with transatlantic airfare. Ms. Forero Rondon admits she was very nervous when she first walked into the lab at the University of Hannover’s Institute of Materials Science but her summer’s work so impressed the supervising doctoral student that he asked her to reapply for the following summer.

This past spring, some two dozen education students at the University of Prince Edward Island gained valuable international experience, having chosen to do their teaching practicum thousands of kilometres from home. “Four of us chose Kenya,” said Katherine Rafuse as she was cramming essentials into her single allowable suitcase a few hours before leaving. “We’re going to a remote village, five hours north of Nairobi. There’s no electricity in the schools so we won’t have the Internet to look things up, or whiteboards. It’s paper, pencils and chalk. I think it will be a good experience for us.”

UPEI provided each student with $250 towards the practicum, and the students raised the rest of the money as a group starting last November. Ms. Rafuse and her colleagues hope to gain not only the understanding and knowledge that come from living in another culture but also many of the soft skills that appeal to future employers. “Jobs are not plentiful here on the East Coast,” says Ms. Rafuse, “so international experience will be a plus that may give us an advantage.”

That was certainly the case for Marie-Pierre Arseneault, an alumna of the Students for Development program, who was a student at Université du Québec à Montréal in 2010 when she set off for an internship at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Today Ms. Arseneault is assistant director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. “It was through the internship that I landed my current position,” she says, “so you could say it has been extremely helpful to me, professionally.”

Students for Development, funded by the federal government between 2005 and 2014, saw more than 1,500 students from universities across Canada participate in internships in developing countries. During her internship, Ms. Arseneault helped organize an international conference on forced migration. “I learned a lot about logistics, fundraising, managing volunteers and communicating with conference-goers,” she says.

Canadian employers are increasingly looking for international or intercultural exposure on prospective employees’ CVs, according to a 2009 survey CBIE conducted. Many employers said that someone who has navigated their way around a foreign country and lived among local people has developed a range of skills such as resourcefulness, confidence, independence, creative thinking, the ability to communicate and problem-solve.

Universities in Canada are starting to help students to unpack those learning experiences. A good example is the University of Alberta, which held its first Back2U student re-entry conference last year that was open to any student who had gone abroad. Seminars, workshops and panel discussions encouraged participants to think critically about their experiences.

Sascha Bachmann, a graduate student who completed an internship in Ecuador while an undergraduate at another university, attended the conference. “It was an eye-opener,” he reports. “I had disconnected from the Ecuador experience but Back2U showed me all the soft skills that I had picked up. Listening to the employers who were there, I realized how highly valued those skills are.”

Yet, despite all this, many students still don’t see the point in going abroad, says Britta Baron, vice-provost and associate vice-president, international, at U of A. “We have to build up the hype and strengthen the motivations.”

Like several other Canadian schools, U of A has introduced an academic certificate, awarded with their degree, to highlight a student’s international achievements. It also developed a program for undergrads called e3 that allows participating students to combine up to three program components during their summer abroad: language learning, cultural studies and an internship. The program destinations this summer are Berlin and Curitiba, Brazil, a venue for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Another service that some universities perform is helping students do their due diligence about programs that seek to recruit them. The sad truth is that not all options are legitimate and often students plunk their money down for a sham internship or volunteer experience.

“Going abroad is a huge growth industry,” says Rebecca Tiessen, associate professor in the school of international development and global studies at the University of Ottawa. “There are so many private organizations that have turned this into a business,” particularly for the high school market.

“It’s a huge problem. The students come back with reinforced stereotypes, all sorts of ethical things they haven’t been able to think through at age 16 or 17, and they haven’t had the maturity to understand.” Dr. Tiessen addresses these issues in a new book, Globetrotting or Global Citizenship? Perils and Potential of International Experiential Learning, coming out in June.

Some students choose to go abroad to work or volunteer for a not-for-profit organization or international development agency. This kind of NGO often gets far more applicants than they can accept. World University Service of Canada has been sending volunteers abroad since 1948 and currently sends 120 student volunteers to 11 countries annually under its Student Without Borders program, working with partner organizations in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Orientation and debriefing programs are a core component of all its programs for volunteers.

“These are absolutely vital,” says Tom Tunney, senior manager of university and college programming with WUSC. “There’s a real responsibility to prepare well.”

Last year, Bianca Staltari left on a three-month WUSC project in Ghana involving girls’ education and gender equality. “Being there brings the university classroom alive,” she says. “It’s opened opportunities for me and I learned to adapt.” She says the WUSC debriefing program afterwards let her see the good that such work can do but also how the program could be improved. “I could see the real issues with development, including broken projects sponsored by other organizations,” she says.

The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which administered the Students for Development program over its 10-year lifespan, recently issued a report that examines the considerable positive influence the program had.

“We believe in these programs,” says Philip Landon, director of partnerships and programs at AUCC. “When managed well, they can have an impact both for the student and the universities, as well as for the host organization and development. Our study shows that students who have done the internships appreciate what they have learned as individuals and that the organizations they work with greatly value their input.”

Even students who don’t necessarily aspire to work in development or for an international agency have forged a career path in new directions by doing an internship such as this. Kara Pecknold was a graduate student in design at Emily Carr University in Vancouver when she opted for an internship in rural Rwanda with Students for Development. She worked with a women’s cooperative of weavers who turned the water hyacinth, an invasive species, into weaving fibre. She says the experience served as a catalyst for her to explore human-centred design in unfamiliar contexts. Afterwards, she developed a toolkit to help designers have a “visual conversation” with people who don’t share the same language or culture and to understand them better.

Now a senior design researcher for a design agency in Munich, Germany, she continues to take a community-engaged approach to her work. “The experience [in Rwanda] has definitely been a game-changer for me on how I do design,” says Ms. Pecknold, “and how I view international development. It affected me on multiple levels and opened up doors for further experiences.”

Karen Birchard is a journalist based in Charlottetown who specializes in reporting on postsecondary education.

Beware of sham projects

Among the countless opportunities for students to study, work or intern abroad are some that just don’t add up.

Sometimes private businesses that are a front for tourism will hire students to distribute their leaflets on Canadian campuses, so that it appears that they have university approval, says Lynne Mitchell, director of the Centre for International Programs at the University of Guelph and chair of the education abroad advisory committee for the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

“I have huge concerns about these companies, who have figured out that by using the words ‘internship’ or ‘experiential learning’ or ‘volunteering,’ they can attract students to pay for what’s basically tourism.”

Ms. Mitchell has a handout for students that encourages them to do due diligence and ask questions about programs before they sign on. Among the red flags to look for:

  • Do they have a Canadian office with a real address, not just a website?
  • Have there been complaints to the Better Business Bureau about them?
  • Can you contact former clients?

She recalls a student who thought he had been hired for a summer job teaching English at a language school in South Korea. But he became suspicious when the prospective employers “told him to buy bottles of Scotch in the duty free, so he wondered if the job was for real. A quick check showed it was fake.”

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