I really wanted to start this month on a positive note; after all, this is my last month at home before I enter my fourth and final year of undergrad. Here’s how I actually entered August: me staring at my laptop for 8 hours a day, stressing and overthinking about graduate programs and professional school. How in the world am I supposed to decide on one program that will change my entire life in just one month?
For most of my undergrad, I’m sitting alone at my desk, memorizing fact after fact for my midterms, finishing assignments that will definitely lead me to what I want to do in the future, and worrying about my next deadline. We are expected to have a mindset of always being one step ahead of ourselves. Before I’m finished one task, I’m thinking about the next step. That certainly was the case when I started third year in the fall and was already worrying about what I’d do the summer before fourth year. I was never in the moment, experiencing everything the task at hand had to offer. In a society so fast-paced, goal oriented, and busy, it is hard to focus deeply on just one thing. I felt the constant pressure to be productive, juggling at least 6 activities at one given time. Slow down a bit and you’re in deep trouble. The unforgiving deadlines are coming after you.
As this internship is coming to an end, I want to really think about and reflect on the many lessons that I have learned throughout the summer. This is such a unique opportunity because of its flexible nature, granting me the time to think deeply.
My friends would ask me “how’s the internship going?”. I always answered by talking about how I learned a lot about the business aspects of the project and what deliverables I was working on. But there was so much more going on. The internship is as much of a personal growth journey as it is a professional learning experience.
Today I want to delve into deeper and more complex topics, concepts that are not readily apparent: power and privilege.
There are clear-cut definitions of these terms, but how each manifests for each person is subject to individual interpretation and experiences. I’m not an expert in talking about these topics and I still have so much to learn. But as a start, I’ll reflect on how these concepts translate to the work I’ve been doing for the past three months.
Being from the Global North inherently gives me power and privilege. While I’ve tried my best to be mindful of this, I did not know what this actually meant until I started the internship. Despite not being in Tanzania, there were many moments over the summer that showed me just how tightly power and privilege are intertwined with the work that I’m doing.
As a Westerner who is able to obtain a university education, I have been immersed in Western education and values my entire life and initially approached my work from this perspective. When I was working on a start-up package, I thought of ways of how bookkeeping can be improved for the yoghurt kitchens. I thought that having proper bookkeeping would help with budgeting, analyzing business performance, and planning for the future. In our society, everything is based on how to best maximize our success for the future. Speaking with my supervisor on this topic, I learned that some yoghurt mamas had a different mindset, one that aligned better with their context and goals. For instance, some yoghurt mamas planned for the immediate future, making enough income to support themselves and their family the next day. Decisions were made on a day-to-day basis. In this case, bookkeeping was not too important to achieve their goal.
During one Zoom meeting, my supervisor from SAUT mentioned how some locals negatively associated Fiti with HIV/AIDS. In that moment, I thought about creating some sort of poster to dispel the negative association of Fiti with HIV/AIDS. It seemed like a good plan from my Western point of view, to provide accessible knowledge in the form of posters to the general community. Wasn’t it great if we could somehow share this useful information with everyone else and solve this problem? When I messaged my host organization about this idea and asked about its cultural acceptability, they told me that it was not appropriate.
Both of these instances forced me to think about our different approaches to similar situations. Though it made sense through my Western perspective, there were many complex social, historical, and cultural factors shaping Tanzanian views that I did not yet understand completely.
More generally, I have the privilege of being very familiar with a commonly used language. I’m able to communicate well in English and use this language to converse with my host organizations, without ever having to think about switching from my native language to a foreign language. I also had the opportunity and means to intern at my host organization, but there may not be similar opportunities for students in my host country, resulting in a one-way flow of knowledge. Just from being a Westerner, I was granted with this power and privilege.
There may be other aspects of the internship associated with my power and privilege that I have missed. This is why self-reflexivity is such an important practice in international learning experiences. Reflecting on these instances strengthened my understanding of what it means to work in solidarity, what actions I can take to engage in ethical partnerships and avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and improve my self-reflexivity.
Based on my experiences this summer, here’s an important tip I would like to share with anybody engaging in international internships (in-person or remote):
Instead of immediately sharing your idea and explaining how great it would be, ask your host organization first how you can best support them. They are the ultimate experts.
For me, this internship means challenging my ingrained Western values and beliefs, learning how to learn from a different culture, listening to the advice of local community members, celebrating similarities and differences, and seeing the strength in diversity.