Going abroad for internships

Gretchen Wilson Jul 3, 2009

Going abroad for internships

Gretchen Wilson Jul 3, 2009


Stacey Vanek-Smith: Summer isn’t just travel-time, it’s also high season for internships. For a lot of students and recent grads, the internship is crucial for building a resume. The downside is, of course, that internships don’t usually pay very well or at all. The financial crisis isn’t helping that situation. And it’s also made employment prospects for young workers pretty bleak. All of that has many young Americans looking overseas for opportunity.

Gretchen Wilson has more from South Africa.

Gretchen Wilson: When Benjamin Bradlow graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania last June, he was excited to work as a journalist in Philadelphia. He got a temporary internship at a public radio station. But with the financial crisis…

Benjamin Bradlow: It was clear there were going to be no jobs to be had for somebody who was recently graduated with little professional experience after graduation.

He certainly wasn’t alone. It was like this all over Philly.

BRADLOW: I just had this constant feeling that there were lots of people like me — recent graduates, who were very ambitious, very much filled with the same kind of sense of entitlement that I think comes from people who are just out of college. And then, like everybody experiences, there’s a slap in the face of, “No, things aren’t going to be perfect for you. You’re gonna have to make your own way.”

So the 23-year-old made his way to Johannesburg, where he had some family connections, and where newspapers are still going pretty strong.

BRADLOW: The industry is not on the brink of disaster — as on the brink of disaster as it is in America.

South Africa’s not immune to the global economic climate. In fact, it just entered its first recession in 17 years. But young Americans are finding opportunities in Africa’s biggest economy.

Angel DiPietro [on the phone]: Hello, this is Civicus’s Civil Society Watch Program, Angel speaking.

DiPietro: My name is Angel DiPietro. I’m from Long Island, New York. I am now a student at Hofstra University School of Law. I just finished my first year.

When most of her peers were waiting to hear back from New York’s top law firms, she was on a plane to South Africa for an internship with a nonprofit called Civicus. She’s building a database on laws relating to the rights of assembly in more than a dozen African nations. She hopes this work will make her more competitive back home.

Something that’s necessary, she says, because in some ways she’s entering the global workforce at a disadvantage.

DiPietro: I speak one language and I’m U.S. based. So for me to kind of get ahead is to go abroad as much as possible.

Spending time in another country isn’t a prerequisite for many careers. But today’s interns say globalization — and the financial crisis – makes staying in the U.S. seem a little 20th century.

Brandon Soloski is pursuing a double master’s in public policy and Chinese studies at the University of Michigan. He’s working in Johannesburg conducting research for a group that promotes democratic accountability.

Brandon Soloski: It’s quite obvious you really have to understand the international system. You need international experience, you need contacts. The traditional route, working on Wall Street or in D.C., is not working anymore.

In his public policy program, summer internships are a requirement. He says some of his peers are considering international options for the first time.

SOLOSKI: People are starting to look elsewhere and into new regions, things they hadn’t thought of prior. So this has definitely impacted a lot of students thinking about what they’re gonna do in their career.

Interns say lower pay grades in some countries are offset by lower costs of living and a chance to travel.

In many emerging economies, companies, non-profits and even government offices are quick to welcome American university students — because they already have skills that are in real demand.

Karena Cronin is with the United Nations Volunteer Program.

Karena Cronin: And so they come with strong analytical skills, an ability to write and communicate. I mean, even sometimes your computer skills that sometimes are not possessed by everybody within an organization.

Sometimes that means American interns can find themselves with a lot more responsibility and leadership than they might have had back home.

Bradlow, the reporter from Philadelphia, scored a three-month contract as a multimedia journalist for The Times, a major daily newspaper in Johannesburg. Within days he was out in South Africa’s shantytowns, covering the national election.

BRADLOW: Which was exactly what I wanted.

In the newsroom, Bradlow edits an audio slideshow on his Macbook. He’s taking lots of training courses, too. In some ways, he can’t believe his luck.

BRADLOW: I’m thinking to myself, there is no way that this is happening in America anymore. I mean, these paid internship training programs are long gone.

Bradlow’s internship will come to an end in the next few weeks. But he hopes to be kept on for a little longer — to take advantage of the opportunities he says he can’t get back home.

In Johannesburg, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace Money.

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