Edmund S. Muskie Intern Helps Host University Prepare for the “New Normal”

The coronavirus pandemic drastically altered Fulbright Scholar and 2020 Edmund S. Muskie Intern Xeniya Volkova’s summer plans, but she has made the best of the “new normal.” Originally from Kazakhstan, Xeniya is earning her master’s degree in Educational Technology at Lehigh University. Lehigh is also hosting her for a summer internship, where she is helping design online courses and trainings for the upcoming academic year.

In this Q&A, Xeniya shares insights about her summer experience and how she made the most of her internship during the pandemic.

Xeniya in front of the Lehigh University Center. Staying close to campus during her summer internship gives her ready access to a community and campus she is familiar with during an uncertain time.

Tell us about your academic and professional journey thus far.

My interest and portfolio are in teaching English as a second language to gifted students at Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Kazakhstan. Before I came to the United States to study for my master’s degree, I was lucky to work with so many extraordinary students who inspired me to become a better professional.

At Nazarbayev Intellectual School, I saw young people being driven by the desire to make the world a better place, creating incredibly bold solutions to urgent global problems, spending hours on coding, developing projects – working in education made me feel like part of greater changes that are yet to come. My students inspired me to get invaluable professional experience in America in order to make Nazarbayev Intellectual School’s future classes engaging and fun.

How did you end up interning with your university?

My search for an internship turned out to be quite an adventure because of the pandemic, which dictated some change of plans for pretty much everyone. Adages about serendipity and all the twists and turns along the way becoming part of your story do not seem to be cliché anymore.

My goal was to have my summer internship in Washington, D.C., since it is one of my favorite cities that I’ve visited so far in the United States. I interviewed with a D.C.-based host organization I was very excited about, but shortly afterwards, the pandemic caused the organization to cancel summer internships. I had just about a week to find another internship. It is not something I usually do, but I think I almost gave up at that point. All the difficult news, changes, adjustments, and uncertainty made a lot of people I know feel helpless.

A few days later, my academic advisor reached out to me to ask about my summer plans and told me that Lehigh University’s College of Education was looking for graduate students to help professors transfer their courses to a virtual format. My advisor liked the projects that I had developed during the academic year and mentioned that she wanted me to work on her team during the summer. I accepted their offer, submitted all the necessary paperwork on time, and couldn’t believe that I actually became a Muskie intern!

Xeniya uses Instructure’s Canvas platform to design online learning materials. Like many other universities, Lehigh is preparing to hold remote and hybrid courses in the fall.

Share some of the highlights from your internship experience. Are there any exciting projects you have been working on or any interesting things you have learned?

Currently, I am working for two different entities at Lehigh: the human resources department and the College of Education. Together with the human resources department, my academic advisor and I have developed two online courses for the members of the Lehigh community, including faculty and staff members.

The internship gives me an opportunity to meet a lot of incredibly talented people at Lehigh. Working on large-scale projects broke down the hierarchies in and borders between different departments, as the common goal of providing the best learning experiences united everyone. Working with professors from the College of Education has been little intimidating at times, as I still feel like a student and giving advice to professors feels odd. However, while working on their courses I’ve learned so much about topics I would never find time for if I hadn’t stayed at Lehigh for my internship.

Another great benefit of this internship is the fact that I feel so safe being close to campus and around people that I know. My summer internship has also contributed greatly to my overall academic experience at Lehigh. Lehigh’s campus is often called “Hogwarts” and it really is an incredibly beautiful place. My evening walks on campus, meeting more people from the community, and reading books on the lawn in front of the beautiful University Center have made my Lehigh experience even more meaningful. The connections I have made with my colleagues and the weekly Zoom check-ins with my always-inspiring supervisors will forever be among my sweetest memories, despite this difficult time.

Xeniya in her home office near Lehigh’s campus.

How have you been adjusting to a remote internship? Do you have any tips for getting the most out of the experience?

I think one of the most important takeaways for me is the fact that self-care is essential. I don’t mind working from home, and I even enjoy it, but there is a blurring between work and home life at times. My work involves a lot of concentration and designing online content, so I can easily get carried away if I lose track of time. At some points I have to schedule an activity that is not related to work to ensure a sense of work-life balance.

My advisor sent me a book about learned optimism that I read when I go on walks around campus. She also shared some interesting advice that I will always follow from now on: having a set of colored Popsicle-stick where each color represents a type of activity. For example, I can draw a stick from a category that represent “a quick fix” or “something that I like doing for the entire day.” If I decide to pick a stick from the “a quick fix” category and it says “have a cup of your favorite coffee,” I will force myself to leave my home office and go for a cup of coffee. This tactic has been very helpful for managing a healthy work-life balance.

How will you apply what you have gained from the Muskie Program and your time in the U.S. going forward?

My Muskie Internship allowed me to realize the goal I laid out in my Fulbright Statement of Purpose – to put my knowledge into practice. Working remotely did not stop me from learning about American work culture and increasing my expertise. This experience has helped me further my understanding of what I can do as an instructional designer to improve educational practices in my home country.