In fall 2020, with the world hunkered down against COVID-19, Jane Schaefer, Mitali Naigaonkar, and Robert Glisky, all U of M College of Science and Engineering (CSE) students, studied virtually in Ireland, Spain, and Ecuador, respectively. Their opportunities came through the U of M Learning Abroad Center’s four-credit virtual International Internships program, which it introduced during the pandemic.
Schaefer’s job, with a Dublin-based solar panel startup, was to write an e-book (“An Irish Homeowner’s Guide to a Zero-Carbon Home”) for the Irish public on how solar energy works and other ways to make homes more energy efficient.
“I thought that was cool to work in marketing, having a break from my normal engineering duties and getting to write something, because that’s something engineers don’t typically get to do,” she says.
“The work that the company did was unlike anything I’d seen before,” says Naigaonkar, who worked for a Spanish “innovation consulting” company that provided services for startups to improve their tactics and technology. Her main project was upgrading the organization’s data from Microsoft spreadsheets to a more reliable data storage service.
Glisky worked for an educational institution in Quito, learning various computer programs used in environmental mapping.
“There’s an independence that I learned,” he says. “I’m taking away the fact that I can still do the work and be successful on my own, rather than having someone tell me to do x, y, z in this order.”
All three gained not only new skills, but new perspectives on work and life through the Learning Abroad Center program, which is open to all U of M undergrads.
Other students, other adventures
Christine Anderson, academic director at the center, recalls other students who reaped rich rewards through virtual work abroad.
“Three students on the Virtual International Internship program worked virtually at the newspaper El Independiente in Madrid. All three were able to publish articles,” she says.
When travel resumes, students can look forward to plenty of in-person adventures, such as that of an English major studying with Poetry Ireland who “found herself on national television in Ireland promoting Poetry Day as part of her internship,” Anderson says. Then there was the psychology major whose research at Madrid’s renowned Cajal Institute—a neurobiology research center belonging to the Spanish National Research Council—led to an invitation to return for its graduate program, and a student who worked at a Senegalese technical school for disadvantaged young women, helping to train them in leadership and related skills.