When and where did you intern abroad?
I interned at the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice in Accra, Ghana from May through September, 2010.
What made you want to intern abroad?
I was starting my third year at McGill University, majoring in political science. My interest in Africa – from both an academic and a personal perspective – had been sparked by the seven years I spent growing up in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I wanted to do this internship because it aligned perfectly with my interests in law and international politics. In Zimbabwe, I’d witnessed oppression and human rights abuses first-hand, and working for the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice was an ideal opportunity to deepen my understanding. Furthermore, I was able to take what I learned in Zimbabwe, combined with all the knowledge I gained in my time at McGill, and apply it to working with an institution tackling corruption and human rights abuses in Ghana.
How did you conduct your search?
I was able to find and apply for the internship through the Arts Internship Office here on the McGill University campus. The office was also able to help me find ways to get funding for my internship and stay in Ghana.
What made your experience abroad a success?
My experience working in Ghana was a success because I kept an open mind, and made an effort to collaborate and work closely with the local employees. It was as simple as making sure I didn’t sit with the other interns at lunch, sharing it instead with my Ghanaian colleagues. One highlight was when I took initiative and found a project that I could carry out independently, and that would directly benefit the organization I was working for. The satisfaction of presenting my research and having everyone listen intently – and for the Deputy Commissioner to use the report as the guideline for improvements being made at the commission was phenomenal!
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
The communication between colleagues was very similar to an office in North America. However, one major cultural difference that I had to get accustomed to was the way that Ghanaians interact when they’re asking for work to be done. Part of my independent project entailed going to various government organizations and requesting files and documents. Rather than expecting it done on the spot as I might at home, I had to be patient and spend a significant amount of time simply making friendly conversation and talking about more personal subjects. In Ghana, it’s not acceptable to simply go into someone’s office and ask for a file.
Did you participate in any extra-curricular activities while abroad?
Apart from work, I made sure to spend the weekends traveling the country. One trip I’d recommend to anyone working in Ghana is Takoradi. The eco-resorts along the beaches make for a breathtaking weekend escape. I also made an effort to take part in extra-curricular activities going on across Accra. The Ghanaian people certainly adored their soccer teams and despite not being an avid soccer fan, I embraced the sport and watched each game with a group of my colleagues.
Do you have anything else to add?
Well, my academic background helped me on my internship. Because of my studies I was able understand the changes that were occurring in my organization, and also enabled me to debate with my colleagues about certain policies and whether or not they’d be advantageous. Ghana is one of the African nations that have benefited heavily from IMF and World Bank funding and being able to discuss its effects on social safety nets and education was extremely valuable.
The internship has also certainly helped my career, as it sparked my interest in working with the public sector and opened my eyes to enthralling work that can be done with public policy in developing countries. I was also lucky enough to be part of one of the most renowned governmental and anti-corruption agencies in Africa.
Justin’s account of his time abroad and the passion that motivated him to go is very well articulated. His story is an excellent example of how it is possible to translate a personal interest in a specific region of the world into concrete career moves. He also writes about how he went above and beyond the requirements of his job in order to contribute to the organization and expand his experience. Justin could continue building international experience by pursuing a master’s in a foreign country, complementing his studies with volunteer, work or internship placements in Africa. After such an experience, he could even consider working with an IGO. If he is dedicated to working to improve conditions and modes of government in West Africa, he could also consider spending a year or more living there in order to develop complete fluency in local languages and integrate further with social and professional networks there.
- Read the complete NGOs and International Development section to get a complete sense of what work NGOs do abroad, and the career options available. See especially Positions in International Development and Finding a Job With an NGO.
- Understanding IGOs gives a broad introduction to the work of IGOs and the potential for building a career abroad with one.