Lina Alvarez Jaramillo (BA '16) received the Liz Gomery and Stefan Fews Internship Award in Arts for her summer 2014 internship at the Quiport Airport in Ecuador, the Schull Yang International Experience Award for her summer 2015 internship at the Embassy of Canada in Argentina, and a second Schull Yang International Experience Award for her Field Studies in Panama. ION sat down with Lina recently to talk about how she integrated these two internships into her academic experience and how they paved her career path post-graduation.
What did you study at McGill and what led to this interest?
I studied Latin American Studies. In first year I took a bunch of courses, I took History, a Linguistics course, Natural Disasters, and I realized that all the classes I liked we're about Latin American. I lived in Ecuador until I was eight, and my father is from Colombia, so I always felt in between the two cultures, and that's where I got the idea that what I want to do is be an intermidary between Latin America and North America and create opportunities from that. From that I also decided to do the Management minor.
What international work experience did you have during your studies?
The first international work experience I had was when I went to Ecuador, which is an internship I found on my own, but then I was funded by the Faculty of Arts Internship Award. I was a Communications Intern at Corporacion Quiport, the concessionaire of the New Marical Sucre international airport. This was a new airport that had been built in the last two years in the country. I was then in Argentina for an internship through the Internship Offices Network, at the Embassy of Canada in Argentina. Then I was in Panama for Field Studies. There was an internship portion with Parque Natural Metropolitano, where we had to create our own project. Based on my expertise, what I had studied in school, and my experiences, I created a project that was to improve a visitors' trail to accomodate people with disabilities. I created a marketing tool for them, I made this e-tours package so that people could have a self-guided tour.
How did you find the internship at the airport?
I messaged this guy on LinkedIn that my dad knew from when we first came to Canada. He answered me and said, 'oh sure, let me put you in touch with the woman in charge of marketing'. It just happened that she was also Ecuadorian Canadian. When I showed up I was under the impression that I had gotten the internship because of my dad, but the guy I had messaged on Linkedin had no idea I was Franklyn's daughter. My dad emailed him to say, "thanks so much for giving Lina this opportunity"; he thought I was just a young girl looking for experience!
Did you feel it was a good basis for what you did next at the Embassy of Canada in Argentina?
Definitely. Especially since the last internship I had done was at a startup in Vancouver, where you could sort of do whatever you wanted. In Ecuador, culturally things were very hierarchal and strict. Sometimes my supervisor would say, 'what are you doing? Let me show you how to do this!' After a while I realized it was so good to have someone tell me to do things in a certain way, particularly in the context of Latin America. For example, I would start my emails with 'Hi, could you please....', and she would tell me no, you have to write, 'Hi, I'm Lina from the Quiport Airport. How are you doing today? I would like to know if...' Culturally you have to do things like that.
Why did you apply for the internship at the Embassy of Canada in Argentina?
I think the reason was exactly that it was an opportunity to act as an intermediary between North America and Latin America. It put everything I ever wanted and everything I had ever learned into one place. Also, I've always loved living in different places, and when I say Latin America sometimes it sounds like I'm referring to the region in general, but there are so many little differences between regions and I was really looking forward to experiencing that.
What skills or knowledge did you develop from that internship that you feel you wouldn't have gotten elsewhere?
Definitely learning more about how the Canadian Government works and embassies in general. The way that embassies work, no one's going to publish that information online, or tell you that information, I think you really have to experience it. I think it's super valuable career advice from people doing the jobs that I see myself doing one day.
Do you feel then that it opened your eyes to a career path?
What are you doing now that you've graduated, and what next steps will you take to bridge your education with that internship experience to take you to your future career goals?
I'm working for a startup right now, which has a lot to do with what I was doing. I'm one of two people in the company right now who is fluent in Spanish and who provides support and services to the Latin American audience. I am looking for opportunities to grow that business in Latin America and increase client numbers. I definitely learned how to do that through the embassy, as we were helping Canadian businesses enter the Argentinian market. This is similar except tech based; we're trying to help make our products available on the web so that we could increase customers in Latin America.
What advice do you have to give to students going on short-term stays in Latin America?
Get in touch with people who have already been there. There are so many little things that you will not know unless someone that has lived there or been there tells you about it. And keep an open mind. Do not expect that things will be like they are from another place that you've been. Even within certain cultures or cities or circles, things can be really really different as well.
How would you go about getting short-term accomodation in Argentina?
I would suggest, 100%, getting a short-term stay and arriving at the city for a week, and then visiting places in person. Also, trying to reach out to as many ex-pat communities that there might be, because a lot of the times they have advice on things to avoid, or typical scams that ex-pats can fall into. And things look a lot different in person than in pictures! Especially neighbourhoods.
What would you give as advice to students who say that their internship is not what they thought it would be, or that they are bored?
I've found that in internships, a lot of the times, it's a position that they created for you, so you also have the flexibility of bringing forth projects on your own, and I've done that in every internship I've had, because there's always things to be done. So if you're really feeling like you're bored or there is nothing to do, determine what things you want to work on or projects that you have the skills to start in the place where you're doing your internship.
Also, setting goals for your internship. When I was at the embassy, once I got there and they told me how they would focus on lots of different sectors, Corporate and Social Responsibility was always my first choice, I told my supervisor I really wanted to learn about that. Then the person who was in charge of that department she would always invite me to things, because I showed interest in really learning about this one area.
How valuable do you think an internship is to your academic experience and then once you enter the workforce?
I think internships are the most valuable thing for after you've graduated. I've been told time and again that I have such a diverse resume and lots of skills. Not that you don't learn skills during your academic work, but sometimes, particularly in cases where you are applying to things that aren't necessarily your field of study, people don't value them as much. Also, unless you really want to go into academia, you have to take what you learn and apply that in another context to bring value to it. You have to love what you study and you have to make something of it.
I feel like you don't know what you want to do until you do it. And you you don't know what you don't want to do until you do it. And that is the number one way to figure it out.
Do you feel that the university should provide funding for internships?
I wouldn't have been able to do the internships without the help from McGill. It would have been very hard for me to put aside the money for the internship. The fact that the university provided the funding for it was the only reason I was able to do it.
Ginny Tan (BA '17) received the Schull Yang International Experience Award in 2015 for her internship at the United Nations World Food Programme in Panama, and in 2016 for her internship at the Embassy of Canada to Argentina. In her internship report, Ginny described her experience at the Embassy as having shaped her future career and education path: "I think that through this internship, I have discovered that I should be exploring a variety of career paths rather than restricting myself to a particular sector". ION sat down with Ginny to discuss the important role that internships can play in shaping your future career goals and how to make the most of your internship experience.
What did you study at McGill and in what way did your internship experiences tie into those studies?
I studied Economics and International Development Studies with a minor in Marketing. My internship experiences have been mainly in the public affairs and the communications departments, so it really ties into my interest in international relations, at the same time as the marketing and communications aspect of my interests.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned during any one of your internships?
I think the most important thing is that you might have a perception of what you want to pursue, or the career you want, and then you try it out for your internship and it dawns on you that it’s not exactly what you wanted. I personally always wanted to do Foreign Service and diplomacy, and after working for the embassy last summer, and having the opportunity to interact with diplomats, become friends with them, and talk to them about their lives and their experiences, it made me realize that maybe that’s not the best career choice for me. I think that’s very important to learn, and I’m lucky that I figured that out very early on, instead of studying for the Foreign Service exam, then passing it, and then realizing that’s not what I wanted. I think that would have been slightly more complicated.
What are some of the skills you gained because of your internships?
I think one of the things you definitely learn is managing your time and managing orders from your superiors. This past internship I was in Public Affairs, so I was the intern who was not exactly under the Public Affairs sector, but not exactly under the Political Analyst one either, so I was answering to two bosses. When you’re getting orders from two people it’s about balancing your time and also keeping the other person in the loop about what the other person told you. I think that’s definitely something you’ll encounter in the future when you work for someone else, so it’s very important to learn that. Another thing as well is professionalism. You learn that through writing emails – you start off by being overly formal and then realize there’s a balance between being an amical person and being a formal person. Also the importance of internal communications within an organization.
What are some key factors that students should think about when selecting an organization to do their internship?
I think one of the most important things is figuring out what are the things you want to gain from this experience, what are the skills you want to master. Some organizations can sound really good in theory, maybe it’s a really prestigious firm, but what you’re doing for them is not going to actually help you develop professionally or personally, so you’ll only have a very flowery or beautiful CV, but at the end of the day you’re not developing any of the skills you want to develop. I have friends who worked with smaller startups, and yes it doesn’t look as well on a CV, but they did a lot, and they learned a lot, and in the long run that’s more important than what sounds good.
How did the Schull Yang International Experience Award help fund your internship?
I was lucky enough to get the Schull Yang International Experience Award twice. The first time I was in Panama, and it helped fund my transportation. I’m from Panama, so my living expenses were covered, but it covered my plane ticket and it also covered the fact that I wasn’t working a paid job, so that was definitely beneficial. When I was in Argentina it made a world of difference. It covered my living expenses and my ticket, which are really the bulk costs of the internship. When compared to the two other interns who received no funding whatsoever, definitely the entire process was a lot more relaxing because I knew that my finances would work out.
In what way do you feel your internships have helped prepare you for your upcoming job search?
It has really taught me what I want and what I don’t want. I think we all walk in with a perception of an organization and you think that you would be a good match for it, but then you realize that you’re not. By having the experience of working in the public sector for both of my previous internships has made me realize what exactly is the structure, so if I do choose to apply for it again I know exactly what I’m walking myself into. Whereas for job search, it definitely opened a lot of connections and a lot of people who could be a useful reference for the future, or a better understanding of the recruitment process as well, especially with the UN. When I was at the World Food Programme my boss walked us through the Junior Professional Programme. If I didn’t work there I wouldn’t know the recruitment process through the UN. The same thing with the Embassy, knowing the recruitment process and how you work for an embassy, that’s all very helpful if you plan on working in those fields again.
Did you use your internships to network, and have you been upkeeping those professional relationships?
I definitely did. My last boss, Philippe, who is the Political Analyst at the Embassy of Canada to Argentina has been my reference for an application. There was also a time when I needed a speaker for an event, and he helped me out by putting me in contact with someone from IDRC in Canada because we were looking for development speakers, so he definitely helped me out in that sense. I still keep in contact with my direct supervisor from the World Food Programme. I think that the connections you build during an internship you can’t really find that anywhere else, and I think that’s one of the main things you gain from these experiences as well.
Any final thoughts or recommendations about internships in general?
Don’t be afraid to apply for stuff. Often I’ve talked to a lot of friends and they say, “I’m not qualified for it”, and I tell them that’s not a call for you to make, that’s a call for the Human Resources person, or whoever the person is reading your application, and you never know who you’re competing with. Everyone is so competitive about stuff, and you feel you’re not good enough, but that’s the environment and we’re in a very good position, having been lucky enough to have received a great education, you are a very competitive candidate and the most important thing is to apply for it. Especially when it comes to the internships I did, if ever you have the opportunity to work in it first, especially since a lot of people have the UN dream, it’s good to work in it first.