A while ago, I wrote a post titled “Inventing an Internship,” in which I discussed the process and benefits of creating a personalized and self-driven internship. The basic message: if you put yourself out there and take the initiative, you can find people willing to take advantage of your energy and developing skills in exchange for your professional development while building your resume and network.
Here’s an example of that process at work
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the annual Win a Trip contest with Nicholas Kristof, but I applied in 2011 and was sincerely disappointed when I didn’t get to travel to East Africa with a New York Times journalist. But the idea was planted in my mind: a chance to learn journalism, which I was interested in, and to travel and become directly engaged in social justice issues in a professional capacity as a writer.
Lucky for me, another journalist crossed my path not long after.
One class in our Conflict Resolution Master’s program was dedicated to hearing from professionals in the field, and discussing the broad application of the skills and concepts we were studying. We heard from professional mediators, human rights advocates, legal arbitrators, and others. Aside from the obvious benefits of hearing from those “on the ground” about our studies, it was also a great chance to network and connect with people.
One of the guest presenters joined us to speak on the topic of Peace Journalism—a re-focused strategy of privileging the voices of the people most effected by conflict and natural disasters and social unrest, rather than relying on the perspectives of the powerful. Our class speaker, Paul Jeffrey, travels the world as a photojournalist, capturing images of refugees and victims of natural disasters, interviewing people who have been most impacted by the unequal processes of globalization. His photography carefully shows the power and agency of these individuals, as well as their context.
The central tenant of Peace Journalism is that the bias of the “unbiased” conventional media favors the status quo. Not rocking the boat often means giving equal time to those fighting injustice as to those explaining why injustice is actually fair and balanced. Peace Journalists prioritize social justice. They argue that there should be sides chosen in the face of human rights violations.
Paul Jeffrey spoke to our class about his personal experiences in the field. He shared some of his photographs, and work by other journalists. I was sold.
After the talk, I went up and introduced myself. I asked if we could meet for an informational interview. I got his email address and we scheduled a meeting over coffee.
Sometime in the near future I’ll write a post on informational interviews. They’re a great way to solidify a connection with someone you admire in your field, and a way to quickly learn what you can from an expert or an industry insider. If done right, the person you approach for this kind of meeting is able to offer an enormous amount of help in a small amount of time, and you can build on that information for future educational and/or professional decisions.
In this case, I met Paul over coffee. I brought a copy of my CV and an outline of a proposal to accompany him on a future journalism trip (molded after Nicholas Kristof’s program). Looking back, that proposal was pretty pushy. I was also enormously overdressed—Paul was just back from a trip and was wearing a t-shirt with holes in it. (I’ve found that to be pretty consistent with field journalists—they’re a bit rough around the edges and have no time for nonsense. I like that about them.)
Anyway, Paul wasn’t able to take me on as a traveling intern. He works for smaller publications and had neither the resources nor the ahead-of-time planning to make it a viable option. Maybe that was just a polite way of saying “no, I don’t want a beginner (even if a well-prepared beginner) tagging along with me through a war zone, thanks.” He might have felt that way, but he also must have seen something worth encouraging either in our chat or in my CV. He suggested that I write a proposal for an internship stationed somewhere working with human rights in Central or South America—my particular area of interest. I drafted an email and sent it on to him, feeling grateful for his kindness but not particularly optimistic that I would find an internship that way.
Over the next week, I got a dozen emails from his contacts. They were grassroots organizers, political activists, volunteer coordinators, and program directors. They were working with migrant farmworkers in New England and orphans in Guatemala. They were organizing with miners in Peru and for women’s rights in Mexico. They were amazing, dedicated people. And they were anxious for me to come and spend a summer working with them.
I was blown away, and so inspired. In the end, I chose to work with an organization in Honduras which worked with deported or failed migrants and their families. I worked with a friend of Paul’s in Tegucigalpa, and then with a connected organization in a rural area in northern Honduras. Everyone I worked with was a local, grassroots organizer. Many were returned migrants or family members of individuals living in the United States. I was supported in my research efforts and invited to join regional conferences on the issue, and asked to join a group of activists searching for “disappeared” migrants through Guatemala and Mexico.
It was a life-altering experience.
When I returned home, not only did I have my thesis research behind me, but I also had a powerful story. Paul helped me shape that narrative into a piece for one of the magazines he works for regularly—the international Response Magazine from the United Methodist Women’s organization (who support relief efforts that routinely arrive in disaster areas before the Red Cross). I published my first article with Paul’s support, and a photo I took on my travels appeared on the cover of the magazine.
These experiences were crucial in my success as a Mitchell Scholar and my subsequent research in Human Rights and immigration issues. I have not pursued a career as a professional journalist. However, I have applied what I learned as a professional writer and researcher. I have been invited as a public speaker and academic presenter several times, sharing the lessons learned both as a researcher and as an intern with these organizations.
I was able to have these transformational experiences because someone vouched for me.
Paul Jeffrey used his influence to help a virtual stranger have the opportunity of a lifetime.
Here’s what I learned from the experience (aside from the fact that Paul Jeffrey is an all-around good guy):
- Put yourself out there.
- Be organized and focused.
- Ask for things you’re not necessarily prepared for.
- When you don’t get your first choice, strategize for other options.
- Take advantage of your connections.
- Be bold.
One of my favorite quotes is by Henry David Thoreau. He said
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined.
Bold action is often well-rewarded in this world. Do everything you can to be ready when opportunity arises. Know what you want, or at least part of what you want. Be able to articulate those dreams. Have the paperwork to back it up: the resume, the letters of recommendation, and the skills (whether completely developed or still under construction). Believe in your story and your power. Luck brings opportunities into our paths. It’s up to us to then take action to create our own paths.
Best of luck with all your endeavors!
Please do check out Paul's work, particularly his "Picture of the Week" series. Let me know what you think!
Have you stumbled across connections or opportunities in the past? Are you prepared for them, should they arise in the future? What actions have you taken recently to live the life you’ve imagined? If you could pitch a dream opportunity to anyone, what would it be and who would that be? Please leave comments, stories, manic lists, and the plans/schemes/dreams that keep us all going.