Greetings friends! I’m going off the grid for a few days to celebrate National Acadian Day in northern New Brunswick. We are lucky enough to be joined by returning guest poster Jill of Couchtime with Jill. Jill and I bonded over our mutual love for South Africa, but it was only recently that I learned more of the details of her life in Cape Town.  

Part 1: “Do as I say, not as I did”

Six years ago this summer, I made one of the gutsiest decisions of my life – and one of the best. At the age of 21, I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and completed a month-long internship at GLAMOUR South Africa.

The internship was a requirement of the journalism program I graduated from at the University of King’s College. Most students intern at newspaper, TV or radio outlets somewhere in Canada – and for good reason. The goal of an internship is almost always to get hired on once you’ve graduated.

I knew I wouldn’t end up moving to Cape Town and working at GLAMOUR. It’s an amazing city, but far from home and likely expensive when you’re not using a bank account filled with Canadian dollars. Yet, six years later I still think of it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
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Why?

I’m no longer in touch with anyone I worked with at GLAMOUR, yet that job is one of the best references I have. It has come up in every single job interview I have ever had, and I’ve had plenty.

In a nutshell, travelling halfway around the world at the tender age of 21 to pursue a dream makes you look ballsy. Driven, adventurous and independent are also words people have used over the years. It doesn’t matter that I hated the internship (more on that in part two!) – I took a risk and learned a lesson. Working in the fashion journalism industry had always been a dream, and all it took was one month living an exotic version of The Devil Wears Prada to realize that it wasn’t for me. That kind of hard-earned life lesson looks good to potential employers.

Interning in the city you intend to build a career in can certainly be valuable, but it’s not failsafe. Several of my classmates did internships at The Daily News in Halifax. They made great contacts, some even had jobs lined up for after graduation. Months later, before we’d even graduated, the paper folded. They were left with the same thing I had – a glowing letter of reference and some work contacts who were no longer based in Halifax. Nothing in life is a sure thing. Six years later, an internship at a Canadian news outlet looks good. But an internship in a big, foreign city will give you party anecdotes and job interview fodder for the rest of your life.

How?

This part of the story could essentially be called “How to learn from my naïve mistakes”. I frequently recommend doing an internship abroad to high school and college kids I meet, and I’m always ready to outline all of the things I could have done better.

Lesson One: Work with an established internship company

This is one that I got right, actually. I worked with the company Connect-123, which at the time was only based in Cape Town and now has programs in other cool cities like Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Shanghai.

To the best of my knowledge, working with an internship company will cost you. You pay program fees and housing costs. But in my opinion, it’s absolutely worth it.

A friend of mine had also planned to intern abroad, in South America. She made all the plans, bought plane tickets, looked for accommodations. Then the paper lost its government funding and folded up. The trip was off. My pal didn’t lose any money, but not everyone might be so lucky. It was a huge disappointment.

I applied first to the internship organization. I wrote a letter, submitted grades, writing samples, and letters of recommendation. I did a phone interview. I was accepted, and then Connect-123 found internships in my field for me to choose from. Had my internship fallen through, they would have found me another.

There are countless other benefits. I paid rent for one month in a nice, clean, central apartment. I had a fantastic roommate and many other interns from all over world lived in the building. I was picked up at the airport, shown how to walk to work and where to find a grocery store. There were organized weekend day trips, intern get-togethers at cool local bars, and overall a great support system. Meeting the other interns and exploring the country with them was what made the experience so amazing.

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Lesson Two: Save your money and plan, plan plan

These lessons go hand in hand, and there’s no better advice that I could have gotten. As amazing as my experience was, I know it could have been even more substantial had I planned more in advance.

The required length of a journalism internship in my program was four weeks, and that was all I had time to do. It was also all I could afford. With better saving and planning, I could have done a three or even six month internship instead. You can accomplish much more with that time. Looking back, I would have been happy to spend an extra semester or year working on my undergrad in order to accommodate that experience. Saving and planning, guys.

Like I said, the costs of doing a program like this are pretty substantial. Airfare to Africa is not cheap. If I could do it all over, I would have started to put money away when I got my first job as a cashier in high school. Instead, I didn’t even apply to the internship program until a few months before I departed. Yes, it was VERY last minute. I can be a tad impulsive.

I wish I’d spent more time planning, too. I ended up with a fantastic internship program, but it doesn’t hurt to shop around. Spend time researching prices, reading testimonials and giving thought to where you’d like to go. I had a longtime interest in Nelson Mandela and the history of South Africa, so Cape Town was an easy decision for me.

When choosing an internship company, I think reputability is most important. You do not want to spend thousands of dollars on fees and plane tickets only to arrive and find out you’ve been scammed. Here are some other things to consider:

  • Price – what are the costs and what will you get for your money? Is it worth paying extra to have things like accommodations and airport pickups taken care of? That may depend on how dangerous you consider your destination to be.
  • Scholarships and Grants – some schools offer assistance for this kind of thing, so start looking into that well before you make your plans.
  • Job – what are you looking to get out of an internship? Think non-profit vs. corporate, big vs. small, etc.
  • Lifestyle – are you looking for an urban or rural experience? Do you want to go somewhere with a great nightlife? How much of a culture shock are you hoping for? Do you want to make friends?

I chose GLAMOUR over an equally exciting opportunity with a rural non-profit because that job would have placed me far away from all the other interns. I wanted the experience of living and working in a big city, and I wanted to experience the more developed side of Africa that tends to get overlooked in our Western simplification of “Africa” as an entire continent. I also really wanted to make friends. (Word of advice? Get a roommate. Especially if you’re a bit of an introvert like me.)

No matter how sure you are that the organization you’re working with is legit, have a backup plan for if things go belly-up. What if you get there and they’ve forgotten to pick you up? What if you get there and it was all a scam? I didn’t make a single “in case of emergency” plan, because I was a wonderful mix of rash and naïve. Find out how to get a taxi from the airport to town, have a list of well-recommended hostels with you, have enough currency to pay for food and cabs for a few days. Know if you’re going to stay anyway or come home if your internship doesn’t exist. (Stay! I would tell you to stay.)

In part two: What my internship was like! (The Devil Wears Prada, but with accents.)

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