How my company adapted swiftly to the new realities of the pandemic – and in doing so found the virtual environment brought an unexpected benefit.
I have been working for almost 17 years on the EUSA Academic Internship Program, facilitating the integration of interns from the United States into companies in Spain. It’s something I’m passionate about as a Third Culture Kid myself, who frequently moved between the US and Spain in my younger years. I had attended 19 different schools by the time that I graduated from college.
It was during these unsettling times that I found comfort in the education systems of each country – discovering that education was like an anchor and that the familiar routine helped me settle into each new place. The strange thing about moving around a lot is that you can feel like you belong everywhere, or you can feel like you belong nowhere, so I know how important it is to make young people feel comfortable in an unfamiliar situation.
“Education was like an anchor… it helped me settle into each new place.” -Almendra Staffa-Healey
This experience formed who I am and what I strive for in the world. And it’s something I opened up about in length to Brian David George in his Being All Of Us podcast. I want other people to benefit from what I lived through and the lessons I learned when grappling with a different culture. Trying new things and breaking out of your comfort zone is such a fantastic way to grow and develop but it can also be scary. So, what we endeavor to do at EUSA is always be there for the student and make sure that they are prepared for the challenges ahead and that they ‘learn by doing’ – or experiential learning in other words.
Almendra Staffa-Healey has spent 17 years heading up the EUSA Academic Internship Program in Madrid, Spain
Photo: Suzanne McCullagh
The EUSA Academic Internship Program is a not-for-profit international education organization that has spent the past 35 years creating a network of links between colleges and businesses in London, Dublin, Madrid, Paris, and Prague. Even the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop us from giving students valuable experiential learning experiences and we quickly pivoted to offering an online service called the Virtual International Internship Program. I was able to be an advocate for this particular approach after participating in the Global Case Study Challenge Certificate Program. The course enabled me to figure out the best way to teach our students in a virtual environment while equipping me with the tools to have the confidence to design a program that would fit their needs.
We soon realized that this virtual program actually offers added value to our standard program and is something we intend to continue with in the long-term. Although in-person training is generally preferable, being able to offer students the opportunity to work in a virtual workspace as part of a globalized team means this type of learning is opened up to new students who weren’t previously able to sign up due to their personal circumstances.
The pandemic has taught us the need for multiple workplace models and that we must give our students the tools to be able to adapt, work and learn in different environments. We’ve also seen that more and more adult employees prefer remote working – as witnessed by this Buffer.com survey – who interviewed over 2,000 workers to find out how working away from the office has affected them.
Buffer.com 2021 State of Remote Work Survey
New environments can be challenging at the best of times but for a young person away from their familiar culture, the strains on their mental health can be considerable. That’s why at EUSA we create collaborative environments to foster a sense of community and help to prevent any feelings of isolation. Our face-to-face time with students, supervisors and university advisors is an integral part of how we work and how we ensure that students complete their programs successfully.
As the IIE and AIFS Foundation’s paper The Rise Of Remote Global Internships by authors Leah Mason and Mirka Martel points out, remote international internships can miss out on organic connections in the workplace – such as ‘water cooler moments’ when spontaneous introductions and ideas can occur. And the paper also highlights the importance of asynchronous work as different time zones must be managed without extending students’ work loads.
We kept all of these concerns in mind using a combination of:
- Zoom check-ins
- Break-out rooms
- Miro Boards during group events
- Padlet and Flipgrid for assignments to make sure communication was fluid and unhindered by time zones or distance.
We incorporated professional development workshops and intercultural activities to provide insights into working across cultures. Students get to know more about the culture of their host company while learning about their own one (or ones) as well.
Since EUSA operates across five countries, this virtual space has allowed intercultural learning to be extended into a pan-European experience. We specifically focus on virtual etiquette and team-building skills, networking and identifying cultural differences. At the end of the day, effective international internships need to generate professional and intercultural learning opportunities – and that is something EUSA is proud to offer.
Learning & Conclusions
We’re now in our fifth semester of running these types of internships. We’re still discovering ways in which our students, our employers, and even ourselves as organizers of these programs are adapting, becoming more agile and more creative in our efforts to connect and grow in a virtual workplace. It’s important to take each internship placement as a unique learning opportunity for all those involved. Everyone is commenting on the singularity of the experience while simultaneously being able to meet such fundamental needs as competency, autonomy and relatedness through this novel work collaboration.
While one of my main concerns towards this type of program was ensuring that it did in fact provide an international perspective and real local knowledge, when I read the comments from my students on what they take with them, that original worry is replaced with confidence and hope. To end, I’d like to share some feedback from a student on her experience:
“The most enjoyable aspect of my internship is the flexibility and variability. I am learning so much about what life is like in a different country as well as the different issues faced by society that tend to fall on the children. I also really enjoy that my organization works in multiple countries other than Spain, adding extra variety to the information presented to me.”
- George, Brian David (July 18, 2021) Being All of US Podcast. Episode 13. Trusting Yourself to be Openhearted with Almendra Staffa-Healey: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3v2mCDnbAUjggIPvMY6ZCd?si=939a1e774d2c48c3
- Buffer, State of Remote Work Report, 2021: https://buffer.com/2021-state-of-remote-work
- Mason, Leah & Martel, Martel (2021). The rise of remote global internships: Promising practices and implications for career readiness. Institute of International Education:https://www.iie.org/Research-and-Insights/Publications/The-Rise-of-Remote-Global-Internships