Less than a month into the pandemic, it became apparent that my plans for spending the summer semester abroad had been derailed. That is, until I received an email with the subject line, "Virtual Summer Internship with Outreach360"! Suddenly, there was a new field of possibility for cross-cultural experience. I remember letting out a soft chuckle as my millennial self recalled life before the internet – I assumed that I had missed my chance to learn in a global setting, but I hadn’t considered the possibilities the internet allows. I immediately knew I wanted to apply for the program, which I would be able to undertake while continuing my studies at Algonquin College.
My first experience with Outreach360 was during a reading week volunteer trip to the Dominican Republic in 2019. That trip left me with great respect for the non-profit sector. My recent virtual international internship experience was also with Outreach360, and took place over the course of a month in the spring of 2020. I worked as a Health and Science ESL Teacher with students in Jinotega, Nicaragua, entirely over Zoom.
As part of the first-ever virtual internship cohort, trial and error were a natural part of the process. But collaboration and unity prevailed! We learned to lean on each other in moments of confusion. As we adjusted to the endless features of video call software, our communication methods were tweaked and modified as we trekked onwards. The small but dedicated leadership team at Outreach360 ensured we delivered optimal education to our students abroad. As interns, the team empowered and equipped us to do our best by offering conversational Spanish lessons, virtual tours of Nicaragua and group discussions on leadership and social change.
Bridging my health and fitness background with youth engagement, I first refreshed my knowledge to ensure I could break down key concepts for each level of English comprehension. As a teacher in a different culture, I knew I had to expand my understanding of health and science in the region to teach successfully. I researched Nicaraguan sport and fitness in attempts to make anatomy class a little more interesting. As baseball is the national sport, I intended to teach the arm muscles by discussing the swing of the bat, and the leg muscles used to run from base to base, and so on. Within five minutes of my first day, I had learned that none of my students particularly cared for baseball! While I had the right intentions to learn about the country, assumptions ultimately serve no one, and the personal encounter always triumphs over research.
Being an effective teacher requires a committed openness to learning and allowing yourself to be a student once in a while. The leadership team was always available for assistance and offered constructive advice. At the close of each day, we spent time reflecting and discussing how our classes went. Being honest about our faults and highlighting our successes, we would set intentions to make the next day even better.
One day towards the end of class, I opened the floor for general inquiries to prompt a class discussion of choice. A student asked, "What's your opinion on depression and anxiety, and what science points to a cure?" The question was wrapped in uncertainty and took me by surprise. Campus mental health fairs, free resources and awareness campaigns had been part of my personal experience for the past four years, and the question made the disparity between Canadian and Nicaraguan social norms obvious. The student who asked was looking for a scientific explanation for depression, and I knew I had information to share. I took a moment to collect my thoughts, which allowed me to deliver a physiologically and psychologically sound explanation that would hopefully connect across cultures.
For the most part, all cultures have different ways of seeing things. We all see the world through a biased lens, regardless of our best intentions. As the sole Canadian on a team of American interns, there were times I even felt the variations between our neighbouring cultures. In social discussions, there were times I needed to listen and times I needed to speak. While there were appropriate times during the internship to challenge preconceived notions and cultural norms, it was always done within the internship unit and never in front of students. Challenging conversations helped us learn and grow, and healthy conflict resolution provoked an ability to see things through a different lens. With the shared goal to educate and empower students, differences got put aside to deliver the best lesson possible.
For a remote city in central Nicaragua, heavy rainfall knocked the internet out. Frozen faces, delayed responses and technical difficulties became a guarantee. Patience is the most useful tool when dealing with technology, as the solution is usually simple and achieved by remaining calm.
In moments of confusion, the students' creativity shone through. Emojis served as a valuable chat tool to ensure everyone was on the same page, digital painting tools helped explain large concepts, and Google Earth allowed us to travel without leaving our desks. We hailed ourselves the 'Jaguar Crew' after class discussions on why the animal is considered jungle royalty. In resilience, speed and power, we incorporate the teachings of nature into our understanding of individual potential.
Jinotega has remained in my mind since the internship. First, the resilience of the students made an impression. Attending lessons on their smart phones, with screens no larger than five inches, they were still eager to learn. Also, during a virtual tour of the city, a teacher from the community highlighted an unassuming building. It was a former prison, later turned into a school and painted all the colours of the rainbow. I found this metaphor breath-taking. Education is indisputably a powerful wellspring, and youth are leading the way with their dedicated involvement. As the world continually changes with new technologies developed, I believe virtual learning will remain a powerful industry and means of connecting.
If you are considering a virtual internship or service abroad: do it! Recognizing a new way of learning and communication opens numerous doors. You discover skills you might have not otherwise found and meet insightful people along the way. Undertake a new modality, learn a new way and seize the opportunity to evolve the earth! When you feel fear and do something anyway, you empower yourself and open a cascade of empowerment into your community!
Bridging youth engagement and health promotion, I facilitate learning environments to equip participants with knowledge on personal health and well-being. I'm currently a student at Algonquin College. After graduation, to further my education and service capacities, I plan to become a nutritionist and work on asset-based community development projects within grassroots and non-profit organizations. Jinotega is unquestionably at the top of my international travel list, and I hope to carry my future expertise on more global adventures.
We love Hannah’s thoughtful and poetic take on her virtual cross-cultural experience! It's clear that she has already honed in on her passion for health sciences and international non-profit work, and we commend her for making the most of her cross-cultural opportunities during this challenging time. Because of her specialty and interest in development work, we recommend that Hannah investigates volunteer and internship opportunities with international NGOs working in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Such opportunities often allow for long-term in-person immersion, as well as hands-on skill-building and work experience. As a globally minded professional, the more diverse your experiences abroad, the more perspective you'll gain. We also recommend that she takes time to reflect on the many international skills she has built, and to incorporate them into her resume. We wish Hannah luck as she continues on the path towards her exciting and meaningful global career!
Check out the articles and resources below (for registered users):
- The 10 Global Competencies will help you target important career readiness capabilities and understand the value of international skills.
- For direct access to over 1,400 NGO listings, we recommend checking out the All NGOs Resource List.
- For more advanced information on how to break into the international health sector, see Build a Health Career Abroad.
- Find out how teaching English abroad provides valuable experience for many international careers with: Teaching English as a Stepping Stone to Your International Career.