Julia Nazerian and Thomas Bridgewater fell in love with the city of Cape Town, South Africa, in summer 2017. The Mercer seniors spent a few weeks there for a Mercer On Mission (MOM) trip with the Service Scholars program, and it made such an impact on them that they returned a year later for a two-month internship.
They’re among 50 Mercer students who have traveled to Cape Town for the University’s South Africa Internship Program since it was started in 2015.
“I knew the work we were doing was really important and worthwhile, so I took the opportunity to come back,” said Bridgewater, an international business major and Spanish minor.
Dr. Eimad Houry, professor and chair of Mercer’s Department of International and Global Studies, developed the program with Anwar Parker, internship coordinator in South Africa and local liaison for MOM South Africa trips.
The MOM trips to Cape Town began in 2008, but with two years between visits, it was always a challenge picking up where they left off and maintaining the relationships they had formed with South African schools, students and organizations, Dr. Houry said.
The internship program was a way to continue that community work and create continuity. The program has grown from sending just two interns to South Africa in spring 2015 to 15 participants in summer 2018.
The internships last between 10 weeks and three months. Some students have even visited South Africa with MOM and then remained in the country as interns.
“It’s been a much bigger success than I anticipated it would be,” Dr. Houry said. “Most of the students who have ended up doing these internships in Cape Town are people who have never traveled before, have never been to South Africa before, but are also coming from all kinds of academic backgrounds.”
Parker has been able to recruit 27 partner organizations that students can work with during their time in South Africa. They include schools of all levels, a museum, TV station, newspaper, hospital and clinic, in addition to groups that serve women, children and the elderly and focus on human rights, the environment, infectious diseases and literacy.
Bridgewater worked with the business department for the Tertiary School in Business Administration. He developed packages of short courses in subjects like web design, business management and running a small business to allow local people to gain accreditation and certifications in certain skills. He also did the marketing for the classes; created a website to advertise the courses and for registration; developed a student attendance record-keeping system; and researched internal business management systems for the school.
“What I was really looking for was being able to have life experience that I can use to help me find a job later on, and (to learn) what it was like to work in a company structure and work in an office and have a boss to report to. I definitely got all of that and more out of the internship experience,” Bridgewater said. “The most rewarding thing is the fact that I developed this program and they’re using it today.”
Bridgewater also gained valuable experience from living abroad and being exposed to a new culture, he said.
Nazerian, a political science major and global development minor, worked with the Ihata shelter for abused women and children. She did character-building and skill-building workshops with the women there, helped implement a book club and taught soap-making as a small-business enterprise. Nazerian was able to leave behind extra supplies and funding so the women can make additional batches of soap to sell in the future.
“I don’t think I could have asked for it to go any better,” Nazarian said. “As a global development student, it was an invaluable experience for me. It was an experience that I could not have had if I had not gone on this trip. There is a really different experience of being totally immersed in a culture.”
When applying for the internship, students indicate their top three choices for organizations to work with, and most get their first choice, Dr. Houry said. As a new part of the application process, students will do video interviews with Parker and the organization they want to work with to make sure expectations are clear.
The interns pay for their own plane tickets, lodging, transportation and food, but they actually end up saving some money by going to South Africa because the cost of living is cheaper than Macon, Dr. Houry said.
They meet regularly with Parker throughout their internship and share apartments with other Mercer students. Bridgewater said he and the other students had dinner together most evenings and hung out on the weekends. Nazarian said she enjoyed getting to know these other students and hearing their stories and perspectives.
The students take a prep course on South Africa so they are familiar with the history, culture and work sites before they travel. Starting with the next group in spring 2019, participants will be required to create a project proposal to implement at their partner organizations in South Africa. Several students this past summer did this and had much richer experiences, Dr. Houry said.
“I’m still really pleasantly surprised as to how adventurous our students are and the fact that they are willing to make that kind of time commitment and financial commitment to travel halfway across the world to complete an internship,” Dr. Houry said. “It seems like the students have really benefited a lot and found the experiences really valuable.”
An international internship says a lot about a student’s level of maturity, discipline and curiosity – traits that competitive programs and scholarships look for in students. With less than 1 percent of U.S. undergraduates doing international internships, it’s a way for students to distinguish themselves and stand out from the crowd.
“Word of mouth has been the biggest marketing instrument, because when these students come back, they rave about the experience and how beautiful Cape Town is and how inexpensive it turned out to be,” Dr. Houry said. “That really helps generate even more interest among the students.”
Due to the success of Mercer’s South Africa Internship Program, Dr. Houry is now working with a Mercer alumnus to develop an internship program in Guinea. Details should be finalized this fall, and the first intern should travel to Guinea in spring 2019. In addition, an organization in Rwanda also wants to partner with Mercer. Dr. Houry hopes to have that program in place next year.
Students, want to apply for Mercer’s South Africa Internship Program for summer 2019?
Find more details and apply at https://www.mercerabroad.com/index.cfm?FuseAction=Abroad.ViewLink&Parent_ID=0&Link_ID=EF6878C3-5056-BA1F-7315023EC3C41AE6.
The application deadline is Nov. 1.