Grace Lower | Sep 6, 2017
My perspective changed when, one afternoon, I received an email from a nonprofit I admired. They were looking for college-aged interns to lead summer service projects at their site in Monterrey, Mexico. I’d been fortunate enough to volunteer with this organization the summer before, and as I read through the email, my excitement grew. This opportunity was a far cry from the stuffy office buildings and coffee-runs I’d always associated with internships. I filled out the application, hit submit, and hoped for the best.
After weeks of waiting, and a nerve-wracking interview, I got the phone call I’d been waiting for. I was going to Mexico! I thanked the hiring manager at least a dozen times (in English and in Spanish) before calling my family and friends to share my news. I spent the rest of my Friday night reading Wikipedia articles and TripAdvisor reviews about Monterrey, the city where I’d be spending my summer.
As I learned more about the nature of my internship, however, I realized that I had quite a bit of work cut out for me. Although food and housing would be provided by the organization, I’d need to budget for a pricey set of plane tickets to Monterrey. And then there were my clothes. I’d be working in 100-degree heat, but for cultural reasons, I’d be required to wear knee-length shorts and keep my shoulders covered — this meant a few new additions to my wardrobe. Most importantly, I needed to brush up on my Spanish (which was mediocre at best). The months leading up to Mexico were spent working extra shifts at my restaurant job, cutting out little luxuries to save money, and pouring over Spanish grammar drills. As glamorous as my international internship seemed, I quickly learned that all opportunities come with a cost.
After months of preparation and anticipation, I arrived in Monterrey with an enormous suitcase and high expectations for the summer ahead. I learned that I’d be working with the organization’s education initiative, which largely centered on after-school enrichment programs. Along with staff members, I’d be using games and group activities to connect American volunteers with Mexican youth. To be honest, I was terrified. At 19, I felt laughably under-qualified to lead activities for volunteers — many of whom were my parents’ age. And with a limited command of Spanish, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the local kids and teens that the organization served.
Thankfully, I had a fantastic group of mentors to help me along the way. Both Mexican and American staff members were quick to offer guidance, especially as I learned how best to work with difficult guests or troubled teens. As the weeks passed, I gained a better understanding of my ability to lead others. I learned when to ask questions and when to improvise. Most importantly, I discovered how easy it was to feign confidence until it became second-nature.
When I wasn’t working with groups of students and volunteers, I also got a behind the scenes glimpse at the messy-but-gratifying world of nonprofit management. I was struck by how hard staff members worked — often for little pay or appreciation — to enact meaningful change in the surrounding community. As I worked alongside low-income families, I learned how hopeless it could feel to tackle enormous problems like poverty and illiteracy with limited resources. But even during the most challenging work days, I couldn’t help but notice the energy that drove each staff member. I was surrounded by colleagues who loved their line of work — a feeling that I kept in mind long after my internship had ended.
Looking back, my internship abroad helped me recognize how effective international organizations can be when they engage local leadership. I was able to see how carefully Mexican staff members worked to educate American volunteers on the cultural and socio-economic challenges facing the area. As an intern, I participated in trauma care training, discussions on culture shock, and frank conversations about the inequities that shaped the community. My internship experience gave me a more holistic knowledge of the nonprofit sector and helped me recognize the value of transparency in organizations of any size.
Although my internship in Mexico was my first “real” professional experience, the lessons I learned created a strong foundation for my budding career path. On a surface level, I gained leadership experience and built my communication skills. But more importantly, my internship abroad helped me think critically about large-scale problems and allowed me to play a small role in a long-term solution.
This past May, I started my first 9-to-5 job at a publishing company. Part of what drew me to the position was the company’s commitment to — of all things — global education. When I think back on my first internship in Mexico, I’m amazed by how much that opportunity shaped my personal and professional goals. And while I’m perfectly happy to spend my weekdays working in an air-conditioned office building, there’s a part of me that will always be in the sweltering streets of Monterrey.
Grace Lower is a recent college graduate with a love for writing and an incurable case of wanderlust. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.