What to expect from a Columbia Global Centers Virtual Internship

By Clare B. Rigney, Columbia College, ’23 Political Science Major

One of Global Centers’ first virtual interns shares how the internship program was developed as a COVID-19 pivot, and how it made a difference in the lives of 150 students.

September 21, 2020

Columbia Global Centers Fall Virtual Internship Programs - now open for applications. Check out the available virtual internships here. Then, apply here.

Last June, the nine Columbia Global Centers launched the Global Virtual Internship program, an initiative to connect students with internships around the world, even while they were forced into quarantine by COVID-19. When applications opened, they were unsure to what degree students would want this kind of experience.  Would a virtual internship be able to engage and feel meaningful to students who, pre-pandemic, had hoped to have internships in an office setting with traditional meetings and conversations? And on the other side, how would global private companies, nonprofits and other institutions experience the Columbia students? Everyone was in uncharted territory.  

Nonetheless, the Columbia Global Centers took a chance. The Global Centers were able to offer students more than 150 virtual internships, which varied in scope and focus, and with different language, experience, and major requirements. While virtual internships are not a new idea, the Global Centers wanted to offer something far richer, a program that capitalized on their extensive network of relationships between each of the nine Global Center and a broad range of organizations in their respective countries and communities.

Each Global Center chose a person to be part of the Virtual Internship Task Force, the group responsible for developing the program. I spoke to Thomas Trebat, Director of the Rio office, and a member of the Virtual Internship Task Force. Trebat was responsible for finding internships in and around Rio de Janeiro, and with only two weeks before the program went live, he was struggling to find even ten internship opportunities. Yet by the time applications opened, the number of sites had more than tripled. Enthusiasm was contagious, and it became exciting to explore the potential for new kinds of internships rather than to assume nothing might happen. The real turning point was when Trebat reached out to Columbia alumni in Brazil, who were more than happy to help identify opportunities for internship, many in government agencies, and companies where Columbia alumni already worked. Columbia’s network of partner organizations and universities, as well as alumni, allowed the success of this program.  Doors began opening in Santiago, Tunis, Amman, Mumbai, Paris, Nairobi, Beijing, and Istanbul. Soon, a spreadsheet made available to students seeking virtual internships had a nearly overwhelming number of rows, each detailing a different opportunity. Most fields were represented, from STEM research projects with professors at partner universities, to internships with museums and non-profit organizations; from the chance to work for start-up ventures, to working in banks. The postings were incredibly varied, and Columbia students, scattered to different countries and time zones due to Covid quarantines and restrictions, could all take part. Within a few days of the program’s launch, the Global Centers had 1300 applications from more than 900 students, some of whom applied to multiple opportunities. Eventually, 150 students were settled into internships around the world.

After interviewing many of the students participating in the program, and hearing stories about accomplishments from many others, it is clear that these internships were invaluable, both academically and personally. Some students practiced their languages skills, others gained research experience, while still others learned how to fundraise. There were myriad accomplishments and milestones achieved, and every student I spoke to felt that the internship had been an extremely positive piece of their academic formation. One of the interns at the Beijing Center, Karen Lui, told me how her experience as an intern allowed her to gain communication skills she didn’t previously have, while leveraging her own experiences as an international student to help the Global Center and other international students. All wanted to share tips and helpful insights or information with students who may be interested in becoming virtual interns.  Because of the success the program found over the summer, the program will continue this year. If you missed out on opportunities this summer and would like to get involved, make sure you register for the September 15th Forum.

If you would like to hear more about individual interns and their experiences or find some tips and tricks to succeeding as a virtual intern, look here, where we have compiled interviews from interns at each center.  Applications for fall term virtual internships are here.