Every November, the exchange community celebrates International Education Week (IEW). The joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education is an effort to promote programs that prepare Americans for a global environment while also attracting future leaders from abroad.
This year’s International Education Week takes place November 16–20, 2020. As we look back on #IEW2019, it’s safe to say that a year ago none of us could have predicted how 2020 would unfold before the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.
Throughout our storied history, Cultural Vistas programs have helped young professionals obtain global skills and prepare for careers in a rapidly-evolving international landscape and economy. In 2020, one of those skills – resiliency – has stood out above the rest. For students and young professionals on our international exchange programs, the events of this year forced them to face a world plunged into uncertainty and to figure out how to respond to a global health emergency that threatens to permanently transform the future of work.
To celebrate International Education Week and the resiliency of Cultural Vistas program participants, staff and alumni, we invited participants from the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Exchange (IAESTE) to tell us their stories of living through the pandemic. IAESTE is a global organization promoting intercultural exchange between students in STEM fields across the globe. At the time of the coronavirus outbreak, IAESTE interns from around the world found themselves in the United States completing internships.
The stories below outline courage and resiliency. Please understand that the stories that follow come from students who were thousands of miles away from their families, and the majority of whom had no way to return to their home countries because those countries suspended all international arrivals.
Varun Sharma, Australia
Host Company: FEV North America
Internship Location: Auburn Hills, Michigan
During this pandemic I was still living in the same city where I came for my internship [Auburn Hills, Michigan]. In this pandemic period, FEV was closed for two months from April and May. When I returned to work in June [I had] to follow some safety guidelines like wearing mask whole the time when you are in the company [and] maintaining 6 feet distance [between coworkers]. My manager was really helpful during that period and paid the stipend even in the shutdown time.
It was hard for me during that time and I was living alone although my family and my friends supported me morally. I think this pandemic time was really tough for everyone and to cope in times like this you need support and [to] support others for good mental health.
Adelaide Ernst, Switzerland
Host Company: Cultural Vistas
Internship Location: New York, NY
l think it’s an understatement to say that I wasn’t expecting this kind of experience at all when I sent in my application for this internship. Of course, for everyone this year has been very special, but I think that few people have had such an eventful year as mine.
My internship was due to start on March 23rd and I had a plane scheduled for the 17th. When the borders closed, I decided to move my flight and leave on the 13th, the last possible day to enter the USA. Honestly at the time, as a lot of [people], I didn’t think the situation would get that much worse. I thought [the outbreak] would be solved in a few weeks and I really wanted to do this internship because it is in the field in which I want to pursue my career.
A few days after my arrival, the lockdown was declared. So, I started my internship directly from a “home office” situation. I think the hardest part was feeling part of the team without ever having met them in person. But I’m lucky because my colleagues did everything to help me, for example by organizing meetings often and asking questions to get to know each other.
My main task was to recruit colleges that would host German exchange students in the USA. I was also able to practice a little bit of my German by taking part in interviews with the participants. As the arrival of the participants was postponed and then fully canceled, most of the tasks I expected to do were also canceled. I was disappointed not to be able to welcome [the participants] in person and organize their travel. But I am still grateful that I was able to do this internship virtually.
Even if I’m used to experiences abroad, being away from home during this time was harder than usual. Fortunately, as my friends and family were also in lockdown, we did a lot of videocalls to keep each other entertained.
I am convinced that I have developed important skills for the rest of my career. I am now more comfortable doing video calls in foreign languages. I also had to develop excellent time management skills to motivate myself to work. It was difficult for me as I particularly enjoy the social aspects of work, eating in a team, working together, etc. But by forcing myself to work like this, I think it has developed my flexibility and adaptability. Finally, it was a great lesson on resilience and I’m sure I’ve gained a lot from it personally and professionally.
Shane Patton, United Kingdom
Host Company: Denman International
Internship Location: Burlington, Massachusetts
2020 has not exactly turned out to be the year I envisioned. Travelling abroad to intern just prior to the outbreak of global pandemic to a scale that has arguably not been seen since the Spanish flu 100 years ago.
My internship was a drastic change to what was expected, from both my own and my host company’s point of view. Initially, I was expecting to travel throughout the United States, visiting strategic accounts, sourcing new potential accounts, and presenting new products in an effort to grow overall revenue. Understandably, within a month, the pandemic effectively halted this, and I transitioned to working from home.
While I did not get to undertake the travelling aspect of my job, I did begin to undertake other tasks and see company operations in a manner that the world (let alone my company) had not previously experienced. Transitioning to working from home also gave me an opportunity to see first-hand the actions my host company undertook to ensure they could survive the unique situation they found themselves in. I was directly involved in projects that would ultimately make the company stronger than ever. I find myself incredibly thankful to my company for deciding to keep me on during this turbulent period, as I know others have unfortunately not been so lucky.
I found that keeping as busy as possible was the best way to deal with the situation. Undertaking new hobbies, such as music making and running, kept me busy and somewhat preoccupied during periods that I may have been left wandering. Additionally, regularly scheduled FaceTime’s and Zoom quizzes with my family and friends allowed me to get much needed social catch ups, along with BBQ’s and beers with my housemates. Finally, as the year as progressed, I accepted that I would not be able to leave the country without the high risk of not getting back in. So, I decided to start travelling within the country. I have found myself “working from home” from the likes of Boston to Fort Myers.
Resilience and focus are the two key skills I developed during my time abroad. Both were vastly improved as right from the offset of working from home, there was a change in the set routine that I am used to. Going from taking a daily commute to my office to working from my bedroom proved harder than I could ever have imagined. Initially, I found it difficult as I simply was not used to it – I enjoyed the office, the commute, and having a physical break between my work life and my personal life. Working from home forced me to adopt new methods of breaking down my day, keeping organized and focused, and keeping a healthy social life. Would I do it all again? Absolutely.
Thayna Goncalves Sampaio, Brazil
Host Company: Studio E Architects
Internship Location: San Diego, California
My internship began on July 25, 2019 and I was supposed to stay just for six months but because of this pandemic I had my visa extended for eight more months, [so] 14 months total. I could say I definitely see a sad and a nice point of view about this pandemic related to my experience working abroad but I prefer to take this as two experiences in one. In the first [half of my internship] I had to learn how to work at the office dealing with the issues in person and visiting the city as a native. The other 7 months were more an experience about myself. I learned how to have self control and be productive even when the beach is 2 steps away from my front door. English has been a challenge since the beginning for me, and the pandemic just gave me another obstacle which I had to practice more my listening without lip reading. I would say everything was perfect timing for me and I feel a way different better person now.
It wasn’t easy to be away from home during this challenging time. Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle this distance knowing that Brazil was and is in a bad situation related to the battle against this pandemic. I always kept in touch with them through video calls and messages. Thankfully I didn’t lose no one close but I feel sad about my friend’s familiars.
The skills I learned from this experience was how to convert bad situations into good things. I’m definitely a new person who was forced to live outside her comfort zone and I liked it. I improved my English and [learned to trust myself more by] seeking answers for my questions by myself without having someone in front of me with all those responses. I’m giving more value of being close and present more often to those who I love and supported me during this process of being scary in another country and culture, but yet excited.
Thank You Cultural Vistas Program Participants
We thank and honor these IAESTE interns and the rest of our Cultural Vistas program participants for continuing to move forward during these unprecedented times. Though the year has been anything but easy, the adaptability and resiliency you’ve displayed inspire us every day.