Breaking Out of the Box: Evaluating Skills Gained From a Summer Stuck Inside

As someone who rarely chooses to dwell on the past, I can’t say that I have too many regrets. That being said, I oftentimes wonder if I chose the correct academic path. Like most college students, I found myself bouncing between a few different majors. Eventually I settled on International Relations, with a focus on peace and conflict studies. At the time I didn’t have very specific career aspirations aside from wanting to work abroad. Recently, I refined my career goals and am now pursuing a humanitarian career in service of conflict-affected individuals. The problem is that this particular field is extremely limited, and individuals are typically hired for specific hard skills developed through engineering, psychology, and other scientific or technological degrees. Since I did not choose to go down such a path, I feel a constant need to develop hard skills where I can.

Credit: Trae Gould

My summer internship at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been instrumental in helping me to develop competencies that I previously lacked. One hard skill that I already had and was able to leverage in my internship was my knowledge of Turkish. Although there are refugees who have lived in Turkey and learned the language, the IRC usually does not have these types of clients. This means that Turkish is hardly ever utilized by the organization. However, one of my supervisors happened to be working with two siblings from Afghanistan, who had lived in Turkey for an extended period of time and achieved fluency in the language. Although the siblings did not know English, I was still able to communicate with them. For the many other clients I work with who do not know English, I have learned how to use online interpreting services and how to facilitate translation services in real-time. Aside from the interpreter request system, I have also developed knowledge of the IRC case note system on the Maryland Department of Human Services’ website, as well as productivity tools like Microsoft Teams and Box. Finally, I learned how to use government websites and contact public officials, developing final products based on my research. As a result, I produced one- and two-pagers that assisted staff and clients.

During my internship, I was also impressed by how far my soft skills came along. Since soft skills are less easily quantified, I oftentimes fall into the trap of believing I have hit the ceiling for a particular ability. The pandemic in particular really pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me explore the boundaries of my existing skills. I consider myself an effective communicator, but relying on video call and direct message to contact my supervisors was a difficult test. I now feel like a much more effective communicator, even in unconventional circumstances. I also strengthened my problem-solving and critical thinking skills, as many typical problems were impossible to solve by normal protocol. For example, many of our clients were missing work documentation due to the closure of Social Security Administration and USCIS offices. As a result, we had to figure out ways to expedite paperwork procedures and assist clients despite these barriers. It was motivating to see how staff members actively supported one another, providing additional assistance when unforeseen client crises arose or someone’s caseload was exceptionally difficult. The success of the IRC is dependent on consistent collaboration and teamwork. The emphasis on teamwork was especially important in cultivating my leadership style. I am a strong proponent of non-hierarchical leadership, although it’s easier said than done. At the IRC, there is a hierarchy but supervisors meet other staff members where they are at and there isn’t a superiority complex. I really appreciated the example set by supervisors at the IRC, and I aspire to implement that sort of leadership in future roles.

Credit: Christ Montgomery

My internship has been far from conventional given the nature of the work and the pandemic, but I have learned more than I might have otherwise as a result. I am now a far more flexible and adaptable individual, and feel better prepared to tackle challenges as they arise. I have seen exceptional growth in myself over the past three months, and hope to carry these lessons forward in my personal and professional life.

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