Scholarship Series: Tyler on standing out at an internship in Colombia
Of course a lot of this may just be subject to settling in, because I only got here a week ago. Hopefully my experiences will give you insight into what it’s like to do an internship in Colombia.
To give you a little background, I am interning in the financial inclusion sector of BanColombia and I love it. Although it seems to be a little far from my degree in law, working in financial inclusion has already taught me invaluable lessons. Principally, this week has highlighted the importance of ensuring that everyone in our society is able to benefit, and access the financial opportunities we so easily enjoy.
Everyone I have interacted with at the bank at my internship in Colombia has been more than willing to help. Despite my limited level of Spanish, they have been welcoming and friendly. However, it dawned on me my second day that I was one of the only black people in my office. There are more than 4000 workers on the premises. I felt this was rather shocking, especially because Colombia seems to be fairly diverse. In and around the office this week, I have seen maximum 4 black people.
Now this may not seem too much of a big deal, and in reality I suppose it isn’t, because people here genuinely are in no way biased against you because of the color of your skin. Quite the opposite actually. As a result, I have become some sort of fascination in my office.
The fact that there is a girl from Kenya who goes to university in the U.K, and doesn’t speak too much Spanish intrigues them. So much so that the first project assigned to me, was to make a PowerPoint presentation about my life and my culture. As I write this, a total of 30 people have signed up to sacrifice 2 hours of their Tuesday morning to find out ‘more about Tyler’.
At first, I didn’t think too much of this, until I realized that no other intern was treated the way I was. A good friend of mine who started work at the same time as me seemed to be fitting right in. She was not asked to make a presentation about herself in Spanish. But of course she spoke Spanish and was originally from here, while I was new to Medellin for my internship in Colombia.
Thereafter I started to notice the small things, like when I stood up to go to the bathroom. It almost felt like I could feel people’s focus turning towards me as I walked through the office. A number of people were too “ashamed” to speak to me because they felt their English was not up to par. When they eventually did, they continued to comment on how shy they felt. I wished they could understand that I felt the exact same way about my Spanish.
In all honesty, all the attention began to bother me at the start. Why could I just not fit in? The fact that everyone knew I was an outsider initially made me feel nervous. The fact that I watched other interns being treated differently also made me question myself at my internship in Colombia.
But after a little thought, I realized that there was no way I would ever fit in. To them, I was someone who was worldly, someone who had the guts to travel across continents to come and work with them. Someone who was brave and willing to strive to meet their goals. My fear that I didn’t know too much Spanish was equal to their fear of having to interact with me in English. Every time I walked by, they would understandably have a few burning questions to ask, all of which would go un-answered because as we have already established, mi Español es no bien!
With that in mind, their fascination made sense. I would stare at me too, had a foreigner walked into my office and began to act normally.
So this is my advice if you’re thinking of going on an internship abroad:
1) Try to blend in,
2) But remember you stand out!
Obviously try your best to fit in, after all it’s what we are all instinctively wired to do. Try not to draw too much unnecessary attention to yourself. This will ensure you’re not putting yourself in any danger.
But… (and that’s an important ‘but’)
Also remember that YOU STAND OUT, and you always will abroad. I suppose that it is a cliche reminder that you are unique, because there really is no one like you. After all, here you are exploring an exciting new city/country/continent.
That’s what my experience this week had taught me. Although I may have gotten a little flustered in my failed attempts to blend in, I realized I don’t need to in order to thrive during my internship!
Lastly, standing out has also made me painfully aware of where I am. I’m in Colombia, a country and continent I have never visited before! I am grateful beyond belief, even when I don’t feel like there’s anything to be grateful for.
I hope you all are enjoying your international internships, whether upcoming or ongoing!