Internships: A must for would-be politicians

By Ines Novacic

When the woman I childmind for asked me what I was doing for the summer back in March, I relayed my plan about going to China to immerse myself in its culture, and search for some sort of life-changing experience. Basically, I wanted to get as far away from Dublin and Trinity as humanly and financially possible: by the second half of third year my course, with all its reading lists (not to mention the lovely new semesterised way of doing things) was causing me anxiety crises at increasingly regular intervals. I envisioned Tibet at sunset and striding alongside the Great Wall.

So naturally, when the woman I childmind for responded, “Would you not do an internship instead?” I reconsidered her sanity and parenting skills. Why would a fulltime student want to work – for free! – during the summer? Three months later I was on a flight to DC, with an internship lined up at the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

I’d be lying if I said I don’t know what convinced me to sacrifice my appetite for Asia for a desk in the seventh floor intern room at NDI. And it wasn’t just finding out that NDI pays their interns. The prospect of working at an internationally respected and globally relevant organisation won me over. That, and how impressive it would look on my CV.

Having scouted for internships in Ireland and establishing that they are non-existent, I turned stateside to the Land of Opportunity. I realised that location and networking were factors just as important as the company and job itself. Where better than the Mecca of politics and law, and what better than a non-governmental think-tank?

I was delighted when NDI offered me a place on the Political Parties team. I’m not a Political Science student, and I was scared they expected me to know things like the entirety of Obama’s healthcare reform, or the key parties within every major political system worldwide. To my pleasant surprise my first week consisted mainly of orientation.

After orienting myself about anything related to NDI and its offices in 65 countries, I enjoyed Staff Appreciation Day. This annual event consisted of a 20-minute ceremony honouring staff that had stuck around for more than five years, followed by food, drinks and new friendly new faces. I had struck gold.

Under the wing of my lovely, young supervisor, I quickly learnt the importance of networking, and began to understand internships as a unique networking strategy. Why else would the wealthy parents of White House hopefuls encourage their Ivy League kids to act as pooper-scooper to the President’s dog? Getting to know the other interns in my office, who were mostly college seniors like myself, I found out that they had all interned at approximately five other organisations like NDI.

Coming from an educational background that is virtually ignorant of the internship concept, I was shocked to find out that most respected companies and Masters programs required students to have completed at least one professional internship, in a field relevant to their education and career aspiration.

The tasks I was given throughout my two-month internship at NDI engaged the research skills I had acquired throughout my time as an English and History student. Finally I can stand up to those who worryingly ask me “Yes, but, what are you going to do with your course?” From writing reports about Youth representation in political parties, to compiling case studies on Political Academies, I happily read through IDEA publications, online articles, and books in the NDI library: I was getting paid to do the kind of research that I did at Trinity. Getting paid to write essays – now there’s an idea.

Apart from the routine tasks I was given, we were encouraged to attend various events both within NDI and at various institutes throughout DC. I attended functions like a talk in the Institute of Peace by Kosovan politician Veton Suroi after the ruling of the International Court of Justice on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The internship opened my eyes to the practical application of skills I’d been learning throughout my course, and broadened my knowledge about current affairs and global politics.

I would encourage any student to consider the internship experience, and I’m not just talking politics in DC. For those considering a Masters or a PhD in the States, internships would seriously boost their chances; and for those having a mid-degree crisis, it’s a great way to discover the relevance and importance of your course-taught qualifications.