Virtual Internships Enable Global Learning

“This internship wasn’t something I ever thought I’d have a chance to do. If COVID had never happened and it had been in person, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused more than 1,000 University of Minnesota study abroad students to return home early in the spring 2020 semester and squashed plans for learning abroad over the summer. But that didn’t mean an end to all international experiences.

The Learning Abroad Center (LAC) quickly pivoted to launch an innovative virtual international internship program that began in June. The 3-credit opportunity enabled students to work on projects for international organizations in Australia, China, Czech Republic, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom without leaving the United States. Internships are available in a range of sectors, including sustainability, finance, and public health.

Students also participated in an accompanying remote course taught by instructors working at centers abroad in Madrid and Florence. One of the students reported that a course highlight was the intentionally created small groups comprising students “working” in a variety of different countries, allowing them to learn about the professional culture of their own internship placement country, as well as others’.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer students an interculturally significant work experience in a remote environment,” said Christine Anderson, academic director at the LAC. “It’s giving them the opportunity to work in sectors such as health care that would not be possible in person at this time. We received a lot of support from the University community, and obviously it’s an experience that students are hungry for.”

Covering Local News for a Distant Audience

Madeline DeningerMadeline Deninger, a senior studying strategic communication, had the unique opportunity to cover some news very close to home for an audience 4,000 miles away.

As an intern with El Independiente, an online publication in Spain, Madeline did a lot of reporting on events in the U.S., including the protests and calls for change after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

“I had covered George Floyd for the Daily and the Minnesota Reformer, doing minute-by-minute coverage for people who knew what was going on,” Madeline said.

Working for El Independiente, Madeline said she had to “take five steps back” interviewing protesters about a month after Floyd was killed.

“I asked people, ‘Why are you here? How are you continuing the momentum? What were your reactions to the killing?’”

She had to explain to those she was interviewing, many of whom had answered these questions before, that this was for people in Spain who maybe only know the name George Floyd.

“They were excited that an international audience was still interested in the movement,” Madeline said.

In another story that hit close to home, Madeline wrote about parallels between Jesse Ventura’s campaign and Trump’s messaging in 2016.

“This internship wasn’t something I ever thought I’d have a chance to do,” Madeline said. “If COVID had never happened and it had been in person, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity.”

Gaining Experience with an International Company

Lindsay SippleLindsay Sipple, a junior in the College of Design, was planning to study and intern in Rome over the summer. That, of course, was canceled.

“I’ve wanted an international internship for a really long time,” Lindsay said. “Even if I can’t go to the country itself, I still want the experience with an international company.”

As a retail merchandising major, Lindsay said it has been difficult to find a job that immerses her in the retail industry in the U.S. Working as a sales associate has not helped her learn enough about the business.

“I wanted to step out of my comfort zone,” Lindsay said. “I knew that working internationally would benefit me with intercultural communication.”

Lindsay ended up interning for Beba Gioielli, a small jewelry designer in Florence, Italy, as a social media manager and digital marketer. She managed their Instagram and created a Pinterest, aiming to increase the brand’s visibility in the U.S.

Working in social media was a new area for Lindsay. She spent some time researching best practices before her internship started, including interviewing a family friend who’s a major influencer on Instagram.

“This internship definitely helped me broaden my skills,” Lindsay said. “My dream as of now is to become a retail buyer, but I could also end up in a completely different direction. Getting experience with social media gave me another path if I need it.”

Lindsay is still hoping she’ll have time to go abroad before graduation.

“This experience has been great, but I’d love to come full circle with it — go to the country and experience the culture firsthand.”

Developing Intercultural Skills

Jessica HerbstJessica Herbst also had her plans to intern in Italy canceled by COVID-19. Thanks to the virtual internship program, she was still able to have an intercultural experience interning for the Florence News, an English news magazine based in Florence, Italy.

“I really liked the creative freedom to write about what I thought was interesting,” Jessica said.

One of her favorite articles to write was about the original story of Pinocchio.

“The original is much darker than the Disney version,” she said. “Pinocchio gets hanged from a tree and Jiminy Cricket gets killed by a thrown hammer.”

Jessica said she gained more than just writing experience through her internship.

“Even if I don’t end up working abroad, the soft skills that I’ve gotten from this can be applicable to basically any sort of communications or journalism or editing field that I go into,” she said. “I’ve proven that I can work independently and write X amount of articles in a certain amount of time, and I can come up with those ideas and work with my supervisor who’s in a different country.”

Jessica will be graduating with an English major and Global Studies minor in December.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do in the future, but I really hope that I can go to Italy, specifically Florence, sometime in the future, whether it’s to study or teach English or even just to visit,” Jessica said.

Continuing in Fall

Due to the success of the summer program, the LAC adjusted the list of available countries, including new virtual internship locations such as Ecuador, Kenya, Senegal, and Thailand. The LAC also expanded the course to 4 credits, allowing students to research the effects of COVID-19 in their internship countries.

The virtual international internships remain popular with students, and the LAC received 270 applications. The popularity of this opportunity increased the instructor cohort to include people who regularly teach the in-person internship course in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montpellier, France; and Dakar, Senegal.

Number of student interns over the summer: 61

Number of applications received for fall: 270

Cities available for virtual internship placements: Buenos Aires, Toledo, Madrid, Barcelona, Montpellier, Dakar, London, Florence, Nairobi, Chiang Mai, and Sydney