SIT Chile virtual internship offers new ‘vantage point’ on social change

June 21st, 2021   |   SIT Study Abroad, Virtual Internships

The image shows a professional headshot of Alix Swann in a black blazer, and a headshot of Yardena Meyerhoff posed in front of a tree
Spelman College student Alix Swann, left, and Whitman College student Yardena Meyerhoff, right, were among the inaugural cohort when the virtual internship kicked off this fall.

Chile has a long and vibrant history of civic activism and social change—from resistance against the brutal Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s, to recent protests led by students, teachers, and workers to obtain social benefits for marginalized populations. With this rich learning environment in mind, in the fall of 2020 SIT launched the Chile: Virtual Internship in Education & Social Change Organizations, an online program that connects students from their homes around the world with Chilean organizations and educational communities at the forefront of progress in Chile today.

Virtual internships allow students to gain meaningful international work experience even if they cannot travel. This virtual internship was created to equip students with experience addressing critical issues, like human rights, gender-based violence, access to education, inequality, migration, and more. Students are supported throughout the program by their academic director, internship coordinator, and a dedicated internship advisor. In addition, the program’s seminar component helps students reflect on their practical work experience as it relates to Chilean culture and broader educational and social concerns—and to make connections with their respective home contexts.

When the virtual internship kicked off this fall, Spelman College student Alix Swann, an International Studies major, and Whitman College student Yardena Meyerhoff, a Physics and Astronomy major, were among the inaugural cohort. While they had each planned to study on immersive programs abroad before the COVID-19 pandemic paused global travel, both say that they found the virtual internship to be uniquely transformative. We recently caught up with Alix and Yardena to learn more about their SIT experience.

These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How would you sum up your experience on the virtual internship?

Alix: My experience was terrific! At first, I was apprehensive about the online experience, but it ended up being incredibly impactful. I learned a lot about Chilean culture and was able to experience it from a close perspective, as well as work with an organization who does a lot of work for women’s rights on the ground.

Yardena: A virtual format definitely poses its challenges and in no way compares to actually being in Chile, but under challenging circumstances, I think the SIT staff did a great job of adapting to an online format. The experience as a whole was fantastic!

What kinds of projects did you work on for your internship?

Alix: For my actual internship, I worked with Observatorio Contra el Acoso Chile, or Observatory Against Harassment (OCAC), a women's collective that recently was able to pass a law against street sexual harassment. My tasks included teaching about US laws and policies surrounding our constitution, sexual harassment in the workplace, and digital sexual harassment. I did this through presentations to a team of volunteers at OCAC, which also aided my presentation skills. We had conversations surrounding these topics and imagined better systems to help ameliorate violence against women.

Yardena: With the Colegio de Profesoras y Profesores de Chile, I had three main projects, two larger ones, and one smaller interview write-up. My first project was an analysis on the Sistema de Medición de la Calidad de la Educación—or SIMCE, Chile’s standardized testing system—as well as standardized testing in Minnesota, where I am from. I wrote about the effect of standardized testing on student learning and development and incorporated my own experiences with standardized testing and how it has affected the confidence I have in my own intelligence. The second project was in the format of a PowerPoint presentation and was a comparative investigation of the curriculum systems for schools in Chile and Minnesota, which included a proposal for improving that specific principle. The third project was a formal write-up of an interview I conducted with a director from el Colegio de Profesoras y Profesores.

What were some highlights?

Alix: Some of the highlights of conducting an internship virtually are being in the comfort of my home, having a support system in person, and access to resources. I have heard that study abroad can be isolating, but I think I was able to experience some aspects of culture and become fluent in the language without having to experience the isolation. I also enjoyed the seminars with other internship participants. We were able to talk about our experiences in the internship and the social changes occurring in Chile and the US. Some of these conversations were about the election to change Chile's constitution and the US Presidential Election. These sessions helped me develop relationships with the academic director and other staff at SIT and the two other internship participants.

Yardena: My meetings with my internship advisor were very organic and natural and would often go in fascinating and sometimes unexpected directions. Our conversations made me think about my own experiences with education growing up in Minnesota, and how education systems around the world suffer from similar inequalities. I think the online format allowed us to have more in depth, focused conversations where we had an hour and a half dedicated to discussing a specific topic and did not have to face the usual disruptions that come with working in an office.

Were there challenges?

Alix: The most major challenge was the language barrier without being able to tell things from context/body language—I would have appreciated more preparation work in advance of the program, especially on Spanish grammatical terms and writing concepts. My low level of understanding of what would be expected of me in these areas made the beginning of the program challenging, but I was able to catch up with extra studying. I would also say that I am about 90% fluent in Spanish, a significant improvement from the 40% I would have given myself before. I assumed that this would not happen from a virtual program, but I slowly saw the impact. It helped me understand that if I did not know a specific word in Spanish that I was looking for, I needed to find another way to say it with words I did know. Being fluent is not necessarily about translation but thinking about what I know in terms of the language.

Yardena: The entire internship is in Spanish! I was terrified at first, but I am now so thankful that it was entirely in Spanish because I improved my skills and confidence so much and got much more comfortable making mistakes! I was worried about my Spanish abilities, but the SIT staff and my advisor created such safe spaces, and I quickly became more comfortable leaving my comfort zone and embracing the learning experience. This internship was a challenge no doubt, but I gained a sense of confidence that I am sure will help me take on future challenges and embrace opportunities I may have once shied away from.

Has the internship impacted how you view social change and education?

Alix: I learned a lot about Chile's culture and education system and have another vantage point about education. Before this internship, my viewpoint was solely from a US perspective, and I now no longer try to relate everything to the US.

Yardena: This internship helped me to develop my critical thinking and reflecting skills by establishing a global perspective and deepening my understanding of education systems in the US and Chile.