Alumnae Bulletin May 2010

Unexpected Challenges

Summer internships and the College funding that makes them possible require Bryn Mawr graduates to develop flexibility and responsiveness

By Alicia Bessette
Photos by Paola Nogueras ’84

Marielyssa Wenk ’10 spent weeks during the summer of 2009 interviewing survivors of political violence in Andahuaylas and Ayacucho, Peru. When her computer and video equipment were stolen—and along with them, hours of documentation—she was devastated.

For help, Wenk reached out to the community she was studying. She borrowed a video camera and redid all the interviews she’d lost, arranging for interviewees to take the bus to her so she could re-interview them, or traveling to where they lived.

She forged friendships she might not have forged if the theft hadn’t occurred. “I met a lot more people than I’d planned,” she says, “and in the end, I felt almost grateful for the experience.”

Wenk was participating in a summer internship funded by a fellowship through the Bryn Mawr College Summer Internship Fund. She’s one of nearly 200 students each summer who, thanks to the generosity of alumnae/i and other donors, take advantage of unpaid work and research opportunities all over the world, in myriad fields.

During their time off-campus, students tackle a range of obstacles. Language barriers are common: Rebecca Farber ’10, who wrote a grant for a nonprofit organization based in Bangkok, found it difficult to communicate with her Thai coworkers since she did not speak Thai. Meanwhile Di Wang ’10, working in China, was impeded by government censorship.

According to Isabelle Barker, director of summer funding, sometimes students must use their talents to navigate less than ideal situations. But, Barker says, even the most ideal situations require students to develop flexibility and responsiveness.

Students discover how rewarding challenges can be, and they emerge with skills to become dynamic leaders, locally and globally. Jennifer Pierre ’11, for example, attended United Nations Security Council meetings concerning the Middle East and Somalia, while Dongli Zhang ’10 trained more than 100 youths to educate their communities on climate change.

Despite the theft, Wenk, an anthropology major, ended up producing a 35-minute film, a visual memory project documenting the experiences of poor farming communities who suffered forced migration, kidnapping, torture, and other abuses during clashes between Peru’s communist party and the government’s militant troops in the 1980s and 1990s.

“People lost family members, houses, fields, and crops,” Wenk says. “Even now, their state of living is worse than ever, and there is little the central government is doing to improve the situation.”

Many individuals affected by the violence are illiterate, she explains, and recent history isn’t taught in schools. She feels it’s imperative that younger generations understand the pain and oppression that took place in their homeland. “This way, children will have a way to see and hear their elders talk about it, and learn that violence isn’t a good solution to problems,” Wenk says.

During the interviewing process her Spanish improved quickly, and she was very moved by the experience overall.

“Listening to what people say and having them confide in me was very rewarding,” she says. “They told me very personal, very deeply-bound stories of hurt, death, and violence. People put their trust in me to use their stories in a positive way. That brought home how important this type of work is. I’ve heard my professors say that through anthropology, you can reach out and touch people by sharing information with others. But that message didn’t really sink in for me until last summer, when I experienced it firsthand.”

Wenk will return to Peru to help build a memory museum for documents and artifacts of people who were killed or disappeared.

Archaeology and anthropological research in Peru

Another student working in that area of the world was Sarah Bechdel ’10, whose internship was funded by three sources: the Bryn Mawr College Internship Fund, the Martha Barber Montgomery Prize, and the Anthropology Department’s Frederica de Laguna prize. An anthropology and Spanish double major, Bechdel worked for one month at Centro de Investigaciones (CIRAN), a research organization for the bioarchaeological investigation of the Chankas, who lived around the year 1000.

To help unearth cave burial sites, Bechdel cleared brush and sifted dirt for small bones and artifacts. She also mapped the insides of the caves and translated between local workers and non-Spanish speaking interns.

From CIRAN’s previously excavated sites, she helped to clean, photograph and analyze crania and other osteological materials. And she assisted with the relocation of a community museum, maintaining mummies that had been neglected by previous caretakers.

She witnessed a two-week generalized transportation strike. Local businesses and roads were closed while the workers bargained for improvements to the city’s transportation infrastructure. Despite the stress of it all, Bechdel says, she was grateful to witness a social movement in action, and see it succeed.

In a place like Andahuaylas, she says, you must be prepared for many operational difficulties such as faulty plumbing and electricity, and patience is key to survival. The second month of Bechdel’s summer internship was devoted to independent research on Protestant conversion in Latin America. Bechdel attended four evangelical churches, participated in their worship services, and interviewed 14 people about evangelism in the region. She gathered archival documents and hiked to map out the locations of all evangelical churches in the city (23, serving a population of less than 30,000).

Her senior thesis will explore how Protestant evangelicals negotiate their religious identity.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to any religious movement as ‘global’—it’s important to understand how religious movements take unique shapes in any local context, whether it’s here in Pennsylvania or in Andahuaylas,” she says. “I am not particularly religious and before now, I have always thought it would be difficult for me to interact with passionately religious people, especially those with such strongly conservative viewpoints, without wanting to disagree with them. This summer I realized my own potential to have an open mind and befriend and respect people whose political and social opinions are so vastly different from my own.

“My time in Peru has given me much more insight into not only other people, but my own future as well.” Bechdel plans to apply to the Peace Corps and pursue graduate work in anthropology.

‘Youth engagement on international issues’

Thanks to the Emily Seydel International Internship Fund, Dongli Zhang ’10 interned with the China Youth Climate Action Network (CYCAN), a coalition of organizations to empower young people as they educate others on climate change.

Zhang founded a program to train 130 students and young professionals to deliver public talks that spread the message about climate change in their communities. The effort involved soliciting funding, selecting and training speakers, and obtaining media coverage.

It’s no surprise the internship greatly improved her skills in a number of areas, including public speaking and event organizing. “I learned how to allocate tasks effectively among team members, how to engage people to become agents of change, how to communicate effectively with outsiders about my initiative, and how to strategize my program so it can attract more talents and have a larger impact,” she says.

When the Growth and Structure of Cities major first got involved in climate work in 2006, the term “climate change” was almost unheard of among the majority of the population. While that has changed, substantial challenges remain. Zhang says the climate problem in China will only be solved with new laws and policy frameworks that redefine growth and development.

“The traditional energy-intensive growth model needs to be replaced by one that deploys decentralized smart and clean technology and human creativity,” she says. “If this cannot be figured out soon, China’s massive infrastructure development currently taking place will potentially set the energy consumption pattern for decades down the road, and it will be much harder to change the system then.”

Zhang attended the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen as a member of the China Youth Delegation, and as one of 50 youth delegates selected from the Global South, sponsored by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“We were there to show Chinese youth’s commitment to a low carbon future and to set a precedent of Chinese youth engagement on international issues that affect us,” she says. Her related blog reached 10,000 readers in two weeks.

Di Wang ’10, a Cities major funded by a Hanna Holborn Grey Research Grant, also interned in China, where censorship made her independent research difficult. Wang discovered a lack of critical writings on race and ethnicity— her main interest area—published in Chinese.

Besides censorship, cultural factors create “an unconcerned attitude of discussing racial differences,” she explains. “One of the obvious reasons is China’s long self-imposed isolation from the outside world, and the idealist politics of the early communist regime that had exacerbated the situation.”

After arriving in Beijing, Wang visited the National Library of China and was able to access some modern Chinese literature before the library announced its new terms of usage: literature published before communist China is no longer available for photocopying, due to “preservation concerns.” Fortunately she was able to find some used versions of the old books online.

And she was able to interview leading scholars before traveling to Gunagzhou, where she interviewed Chinese and African people involved in small-scale international trade, African musicians in China, and local African community leaders.

“I worked more like a journalist than a field researcher,” she says, “employing a qualitative approach. I guess the line between the two respective fields has become blurred in the study of ethnography. I love to listen to people’s stories. I always see my own in theirs.”

Nonetheless, Wang says the interviews were difficult because of the culturally sensitive topic and the restrained political context. She learned quickly how to create a comfortable atmosphere and win her interviewees’ trust. The internship helped her focus the academic question of what has cultivated racism towards people with African heritage in a Chinese context.

Experiential learning

A “perfect example of experiential learning” is what Jennifer Pierre ’11 calls her internship with the United States Mission to the United Nations. Thanks to the Alumnae Regional Scholarship Fund, she got a firsthand glimpse of American foreign policy while working in the sanctions unit within the Mission’s political affairs department.

She attended U.N. Security Council meetings concerning the Middle East, Somalia, and women and war, taking notes for her supervisors and briefing State Department officials on the deliberations. She also translated documents from French to English, and drafted memos for ambassadors.

The experience solidified Pierre’s career goals; she plans to pursue graduate studies in public policy or international affairs. Her interests expanded from solely issues in Africa to security issues worldwide and foreign policy issues in the Middle East.

“The internship conveyed that with adequate academic preparation, I will flourish in such an environment. I now have no doubt that this is what I want to work on in the future,” she says.

She also returned to Bryn Mawr determined to improve her writing, which she considers her biggest academic challenge. “My job demanded precise, clear writing, with no figurative language,” she says. “That was hard to adjust to. As a result I’ve decided to take more English classes and writingintensive classes.” She is studying in France this semester.

Another political science major, Deborah Ahenkorah ’10, has a particular interest in literacy in Africa. A native of Ghana, she won a Katharine Houghton Hepburn internship and worked in Washington, D.C., with the Global Fund for Children (founded by Maya Ajmera ’89), creating a model for exploring possible partnerships for GFC’s publishing division. She focused on children’s books in Africa, and presented her recommendations on the best ways nonprofit international organizations like GFC can support the industry there.

“The internship was a great learning experience for me on several levels,” says Ahenkorah. “Aside from the knowledge I gained about children’s books and publishing, I left GFC with a deep understanding of the nonprofit world.

She found that while many of the books available in developing countries are high quality, they do very little to support local cultures and indigenous languages. “There is a huge need for those nonprofits that send books from the developed world,” says Ahenkorah, “but more and more today, there is an urgent need for other organizations to step in and balance the system. An appreciation for locallythemed and local language literature needs to be encouraged and organizations like GFC are well-positioned to support this need.”

For Ahenkorah, a personal challenge was living up to her own expectations. Having established Africa’s first and only literature award for writers of children’s books the year before, she had to set achievable expectations and tell herself there was only so much she could do in eight weeks.

Sociology, social work and public health

Yet more Bryn Mawr students intern in the fields of sociology, social work and public health.

Sociology major Rebecca Farber ’10 conducted independent research in Thailand after receiving the Pollak grant from the sociology department. She wanted to learn how different societal and cultural factors impact the mobilization of marginalized groups, specifically gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-indentified people.

At the Rainbow Sky Association (RSAT), a Bangkok resource center for social, mental, and sexual health, Farber’s major task was to write a grant for the Global Fund for Women. The grant increased monetary and program resources for the Ladies Group, RSAT’s under-funded lesbian volunteer branch.

“What made the grant-writing process most difficult was the language barrier between me and most of the RSAT volunteers and staff members,” Farber recalls. “I couldn’t directly ask certain people for information since I don’t speak Thai, so that really extended the process.” She relied on one staff member who served as a translator, and on communicating with gestures.

She often was discouraged by her outsider perspective, feeling like the “weight of being American was impossible to shed,” she says. “But perhaps what bridged the gaps of cultural and social differences was our willingness to commit to things that were meaningful to us, and to a community we saw as vital.”

The internship lends insight to Farber’s senior thesis, which focuses on the commodification of Thailand’s third gender, kathoey (transgender women), as cabaret performance workers.

Mia Chin ’12 participated in Bryn Mawr’s Summer of Service program, an opportunity for students to live, serve and learn in the Bryn Mawr community. Chin interned at ACLAMO (Accion Comunal Latinoamericana de Montgomery County), a full-service bilingual community human service agency.

“I did not realize that I could combine multiple passions— the Spanish language, child education, and sociology—into one unique experience,” Chin says. “It surprised me that one summer could be so rewarding and holistic.”

Primarily, Chin assisted ACLAMO’s pre-K teacher, working with 3- to 5-year-old children; and she assisted first- and second-grade teachers a nearby elementary school. She also made house visits alongside a family social worker.

“The need for trust, patience and understanding were more important in being able to build a relationship with the children and the mothers,” says Chin, who was surprised by the deep connection she felt with them. In fact, she developed such strong relationships that she continued working at ACLAMO twice a week during fall semester.

She says her internship impacted her life in many ways, solidifying her desire to major in sociology and continue working in the Latino diaspora community in elementary education.

Psychology major Allison Bates ’09, who won the Nadia Anne Mirel Fellowship, also was surprised by strong emotional connections. Her summer internship in Guatemala City was at Camino Seguro (Safe Passage), an organization that works with poor families, offering childcare, literacy programs, after-school educational reinforcement, and a nursery.

Bates was a teacher’s aid, mentoring sixth-graders ranging in age from 11 to 16, some of whom did not have the chance to attend school before their involvement with Camino Seguro. She also helped first-grade students with homework, school projects, activities, and lessons.

Her biggest challenge was getting accustomed to cultural differences. “The children at Camino Seguro come from very humble backgrounds and live together in small quarters,” she explains. “Coming from a place where I enjoy so much privilege and opportunity, to see these kids who have nothing was shocking at first.”

One mother asked Bates to help her into the United States and set her up with work so that she could eventually send for her daughter. “It was very upsetting, and that kind of thing can really get to you,” says Bates.

Her most rewarding moment was comforting a normally very quiet child while a nurse extracted an insect from his ear. “We chatted about how he liked the outdoors and soccer and about a school-sponsored excursion that weekend,” she says. “That encounter really amazed me so much and made me realize just how rewarding working with kids can be. Those 10 minutes spent with Julio made my whole week.”

Bringing her psychology background to the education based internship allowed Bates to understand peoples’ perspectives, “where they are coming from, their lives and experiences, and how to deal with all sorts of issues.”

She says the internship was perfect for her as it combined so many of her interests and gave her contacts for future networking. She is looking for jobs in the social services sector and hopes to work with children.

Katherine Bakke ’11 is a religion major at Haverford who aspires to serve marginalized and vulnerable populations as a physician. Thanks to the Kaplan-Kandel Internship Fund, Bakke worked with a nonprofit clinic near her home in Oregon that provides affordable healthcare to underserved populations, particularly migrant farm workers. With a small group of staff and volunteers, she helped coordinate mobile clinic visits to 13 different migrant camps.

Her initial disappointment that privacy laws would prevent her from shadowing physicians subsided as she got to work alongside a nurse and an EMT.

Sometimes Bakke played games with children while their parents consulted the doctor. Other days she acted as a translator, worked with the head triage nurse to distribute nonprescription medications to patients, or tracked the number of patients who visited the health education stations at the camps.

She admits she felt uncomfortable while manning the donations area, monitoring how many articles of clothing each person took. “It was hard enough to be authoritative while speaking a language in which I am not fluent, but I also felt uncertain about my role as someone who told people who had very little how much they could take,” she recalls. “How do I know what they need? How can I say, ‘No, you can’t take anymore?’ ”

Because of the internship Bakke plans to pursue a combined MD/MPH (master in public health) degree. “Seeing the daily operations of a clinic that caters to at-risk populations was revealing of the struggles and triumphs of such an endeavor, and has been helpful in focusing my ideas about medicine and what kind of doctor I want to be,” she says.

Summer internships provide unequalled preparation for coping with all sorts of challenges—professional, academic, and personal. Through their experiences, students learn that an understanding of themselves leads to an understanding of the world, and vice versa.

Students can learn more about how to find and fund internships at the annual Internship Fair, held every fall on campus.

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