As I sit in the Helsinki Airport awaiting 36 hours of traveling, I am reflecting on what my internship experience has meant to me and what it will mean for my future. I cannot prognosticate specifically as to what I will think about this experience in 5, 10, or 25 years, but I have a hunch.
I have written in previous posts about how this experience has challenged me to become more flexible, positive, and determined. During our last project meeting, we talked a lot about grit. Over the course of the internship, we lost a third of our team. These members left for various reasons, most of them stemming from frustrations with the project. When things are not going according to plan, it is easy to abandon one task in favor of another. I am not saying that their reasons for leaving were not warranted. However, I am grateful I stayed and that the thought of quitting never crossed my mind.
Was this project worth it, disorganization and all? Absolutely. Some of my coworkers expressed that it was worth it simply because we were in Helsinki and had the opportunity to see a new part of the world. One even said that had she not been in Europe, she would have quit the project as well. While I relished exploring Finland, I believe that the project itself was worth it, though I have grappled with the question of whether it was impactful for those we were trying to assist.
The concept of “voluntourism” gets a lot of flack. Hence, I have worked to convince myself that an international unpaid internship does not fall into that category. Honestly, though, I’m not sure. Our project will continue after we are gone, propped up by other international volunteers working for a local resettlement agency. After them, more interns may come, the project may be absorbed, or it may be discontinued. I do know that the relationships I formed with the women changed me for the better and will affect me for the rest of my life.
Before this internship, I saw refugees as their experiences before I saw them as people. I was expecting for that view to be exacerbated as I heard personal stories from actual refugees, but actually, it was the opposite. Now, I see refugees as people first (perhaps that seems obvious, but with new coverage of the refugee crisis, it is easy to become caught up in the huge scale of it all before the people). These are women with families, hobbies, skills, and favorite foods, and they are fun. I hesitate to say they are normal, because I’m not sure anyone is “normal” once you get to know each unique personality. I am struggling to articulate how much I have grown to care for them — not because of what they have overcome, but because of who they are.
I have made one tangible change already because of my experience. At the end of last semester, I decided to discontinue my Arabic classes after completing the LSA language requirement. I have already righted that mistake and enrolled for third-year Arabic. If better language skills can open doors to more people like the women I met here, I am up for the challenge.
I don’t know if this internship will help me get a job in the future. I don’t believe I have made lifelong friends because of it. However, I believe the skills I gained will enable me to have a more meaningful life, if only because I care for others on a new level. I have gained the confidence to know I can work in a team of people I have almost nothing in common with. I can entertain myself independently for nearly two months in a country where I know no one. I am more open to different ways of life. In 5, 10, 25 years, I want to look back at this experience as one of the highlights of my life, and I want to be able to say, unequivocally, that I am better for it.
‘Til we meet again.