Participating in an internship can be a learning experience at any age, and should not be considered a workplace experience for students alone. Internships can provide new insights into organizational operations, communications, and mission goals.
A few young African professionals and the workplace mentors who have guided them through their internships participated in a Washington panel discussion and shared their insights with an online audience.
“It’s an exciting journey to put the pieces of the puzzle together so it can help my experience back home. For me, that’s huge,” said Irene Chikumbo, who interned at the U.S. African Development Foundation. She is from Zimbabwe where she is a cofounder and community manager at the Hypercube Technology Hub. Irene is working to build information technology capabilities in Harare and encourage digital startups.
Irene interned at the U.S. African Development Foundation, an organization with a large institutional culture and global operations. It’s a very different workplace from Irene’s Harare nonprofit organization.
“The internship has helped me understand some things that I would probably not have understood as an entrepreneur: understanding systems and processes and building relationships. [These are experiences] that I probably never would have had if I hadn’t come on the internship.”
Panel members – interns and mentors alike – described their relationship as one of give-and-take. Interns can learn a lot in a professional workplace, but they need to give a lot also.
“The most important thing is energy and interest,” said Karen Carter, a Smithsonian Institution mentor, “and a commitment to lifelong learning.”
Mohammed Umar is a civil servant in Nigeria who served a Washington internship at the U.S. Department of Transportation. In this workplace, Mohammed said he developed better decision-making skills and discovered how to evaluate resources, needs and operational conditions to arrive at better policies.
“By the time I’m going home,” Mohammed said during a panel, “I would really love to apply that pattern that will help me to coordinate our major goals, our policies back home, and our major actions to enable us to become much more productive and change the way we do business to conform with modern international challenges in the 21st century.”
Sheila Helton-Intram, Mohammed’s mentor at the Department of Transportation, said he quickly learned one of the first lessons of internship. “When you come in as an intern, you have to jump in, [and] hit the ground rolling.”
Working in a racially and culturally diverse workplace is an important experience Jean Pierre Maro will take home to Senegal from his internship at the Smithsonian Institution. He said he’s come to recognize racial and cultural diversity as “richness” and assets that help a leader develop better policies and make better decisions.
“There’ no way you are going to implement good policies that are going to have good impacts if you [do not] have diversity in mind as a starting point.”
Jean Pierre Maro founded Bridge Kids Senegal, a nonprofit organization devoted to providing schooling for underprivileged children.
Through their internships, these African professionals gained valuable experiences that not only supported their career goals, but gave them opportunities to engage in new different environments.