Internships and Initiative
by Jona Hoxha UA’17 and Jim Stellar
I met a few students at a recent dinner for alumni at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. We got into a conversation about how internships intersect with abroad experiences in Experiential Education or what SUNY calls Applied Learning. In JH’s case she grew up in another country, Albania, and immigrated to America at the age of seventeen, and is pursuing a BA degree in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. Her story shows what a student can do with a little initiative and a little faculty support.
Many of the opportunities that I have received as a UAlbany and Rockefeller undergraduate have stemmed from being an active member of the student body and building relationships with faculty and staff. I learned about the START Fellowship through my professor, when I was doing research for one of his projects – the Big, Allied and Dangerous database. As a result, now I am creating my own research project on extremist organizations in Eastern Europe and will be presenting my work at START in October. I was also encouraged to participate in the Washington semester through Rockefeller faculty and staff: I decided to apply and had an amazing experience as an intern at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. I served as an intern of the Global Europe program and provided support for the program itself, as well as provided research assistance for one of the scholars in the Center. For other opportunities, such as the Center for International Development internship, I took the initiative myself – given my interest in pursuing a career in the field. This experience opened my eyes and gave me a valuable insight within the broad field of international development.
The combination of theoretical knowledge obtained through my courses together with the applied learning gained through my internships, research positions, and student organizations has unquestionably helped me become a more well-rounded student and individual, while also becoming an ambassador for UAlbany, especially outside of New York and the US.
How much did your international background provide an impetus to your study?
My international background has been an important advantage throughout my undergraduate experience. I was lucky enough to have learned English in advance when I lived for a year in the UK as a child and then later on in my home country, so language was not a barrier when I moved to the States. Apart from Albanian and English, I also learned Italian, Spanish, French and Turkish during different stages of my life. Coming from a small country like Albania, it is essential to learn different foreign languages if you want to become a successful professional, at least generally speaking. The emphasis placed on learning foreign languages while I was growing up, combined with travelling to various countries and exposing myself to different forms of art (music, cinema, literature) from other cultures, is reflected in who I am to this day – a more culturally aware individual who can easily adapt in different environments while building connections with people from different backgrounds. (That maybe explains why a vast majority of my friends in the university are international/exchange students).
From an academic perspective, I believe that my international background has significantly contributed to my performance as a student. It has helped me absorb and process information relatively fast (when I’m paying full attention, at least), as well as it has improved my multi-tasking skills. Many of the “rules” I’ve learned while studying foreign languages, I can apply to other areas of study to help me make sense of a particular issue and find ways to solve it or memorize it, depending what the necessary approach is. From a professional and career perspective, my international background has made me more confident in terms of networking and internship/job applications given that multilingualism is very much valued – particularly in the field of International Relations. My international background has also contributed to me becoming a more tolerant and open-minded individual, who tries to approach and solve problems through communication and rationality.
What are your plans for this summer and how does it relate to the combination of your international experience and the experiences of the internships to this point.
This summer my plans will be divided between doing research for my START fellowship and travelling to Europe. As I mentioned earlier, I will be presenting my work at the START Annual Meeting at its headquarters in Maryland during this upcoming October. I am currently in the process of coding various extremist (violent and non-violent) organizations in Eastern Europe, and once I have collected all the data, I will run a regression analysis with the help of my mentor in order to interpret the results. My final product will be a poster that I will present at START, and eventually I will turn my research into an honors thesis for my undergraduate requirement, and potentially into a publication further down the line. One of my long-term goals is potentially getting a PhD in the future and entering the world of academia, and this opportunity is helping me create a better idea of how such path would look like.
The other part of my summer, travelling to Europe, is a bit less structured at this point. I am looking into becoming a short-term volunteer at a non-profit helping refugee children in Greece, given the ongoing refugee crisis. I am currently getting more information about the logistics of such commitment (unfortunately structural limitations sometimes get in the way of doing what we want). Humanitarian work has been one of the leading factors why I entered this field of study in the first place, and I believe that – despite the various difficulties during the process – it would be an extremely rewarding experience from which I can learn a lot and bring back with me to the States, while in the same time helping those who are the most vulnerable. We hear and read a lot about what is going on miles away from us, and it is often hard to relate to those experiences that seem so distant. If I do get the chance to contribute first-hand to these refugees’ lives, while also discovering the path that I want to take for the future of my education and career, it would be one of the greatest highlights of my human experience so far.
The combination of all my experiences mentioned above – as a student from an international background and as a learner through internship and fellowship opportunities – has tremendously enriched my undergraduate career and has helped me become a more versatile student and human being. I would encourage every student to make that first step and take the initiative to explore outside your comfort zone – you’d be surprised how many opportunities and people willing to help are around you.
The combination of direct experiences working outside the classroom and a perspective from which to view them as a someone who grew up in another culture, provides a powerful instinctive base from which to reason about what things mean and how to approach them. I see that in the story above.
A classical higher education, with its courses and curriculum structure, tends to feed the facts-and-theories academic side of our minds. On the other hand direct, experiences tends to feed the more intuitive side of our minds, allowing us to put the knowledge into action and deepen the student’s ownership of it. The problem is then integrating these forms of learning for as Blaise Pascal, the 18th century mathematician and philosopher said, “The heart has reasons of which reason does not know.” This is why reflection is important – trying to put the experiences and their meaning into words and integrate them with what one has studied in the classroom. Reflection is aided by having a perspective and one way to do that may be to come from another country and culture. When these two attributes come together, students often achieve a maturity of perspective, an ability to integrate knowledge across domains, a powerful way of operating “outside of your comfort zone” as JH says above. The new job of Higher Education is to work with our students to produce experiential learning to compliment the academic learning in the curriculum and lead to much greater success in the classroom during college and after.