Hong Kong internships tough but rewarding

August 27, 2019
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

Culture shock, strenuous real-life workplace demands and deep 24/7 cultural immersion amount to “a very good experience” for Saint Michael’s College students who have been in Hong Kong since June 17 on Freeman Foundation grants for professional internships, says Jeffrey Ayres, the former dean and current political science/international relations faculty member. He visited the interns during a late July visit to Asia, and had a taste of the program that he coordinates on the Vermont campus side of things.

“It’s part of a growing set of initiatives at Saint Michael’s that are deepening internationalization on campus with our record number of Fulbrights and record number of Peace Corps Prep graduates this year too, along with these new Freeman students, who we hope to double in number next year,” said Ayres, who flew up to Hong Kong for a few days with the students and their internship coordinators after presenting a paper at a major political science conference in Australia about the fate of NAFTA under the Trump administration.

“Since I already was on the other side of the world I thought, let’s fly up and see how this first group of Freeman students are doing,” he said, referring to the program that emerged from a successful grant application by the College last year. “I really got see first-hand that they’re doing well — and professionally, they’ve really become immersed in a phenomenally different culture.” Ayres said all the interns told him that “overwhelmingly the global experience had really benefitted them, though they’re really having to adjust to a frenetic pace.” The group is set to return home soon – on August 11.

The students in Hong Kong (and their internship workplaces) are: Alex Otten, (class of 2019, Asia Care Group Health Care Consulting); Dagmar Charity Lee Wright (class of 2020, Association of Professionals Lifespan Development and Education Research for Youth where she basically mentors middle and high school aged children in English); Asah Whalen, class of 2019 (Heroes Too, a sustainability non-governmental organization or NGO), and Aaron Kalat, (class of 2019, with a public relations company). Kalat majors in media studies, journalism and digital arts at Saint Michael’s while the other three are in political science/international relations.

Their work days as the students described them to Ayres mirror those of co-workers at their intern sites who are deeply imbued with a cultural ethos in which “it’s perfectly normal to work at 7 or 8 at night during the weekday, and they’re often asked to come in on weekends — that’s just how it works,” the former dean said. Then on Saturdays, the Saint Michael’s interns have been joining interns from other colleges and universities on cultural outings, arranged through the same group that set up their internships, the Academic Internship Council, an international organization based in Boston but with offices that long have done this kind of work around the world.

Ayres joined a Saturday intern trip during his visit to a suburban region near the Chinese mainland border to visit a famous traditional bakery and a museum dedicated to some of the early families that settled in that area. “With these Saturday cultural experiences, the students have one down day, which is Sunday, so they’re pretty wiped out, but it’s their opportunity to see and work through a different culture,” he said.

Ayres also met with Rebeca Chow and Claudia Mo of the Council during his visit, as well as with the founder of the intern site where student Charity Wright was working. With the students and some guests he also enjoyed several great meals out, walking through the Hong Kong streets and finding wonderful and cheap dim sum places — and Ayres stayed in a different part of the same hotel that is the student-interns’ residence. He described it as a dorm-like atmosphere, with the Saint Michael’s interns pairing up in rooms that have kitchenettes and good views, among students from top colleges all over the world – which is a big part of the rich overall experience. “These were students from Cal Berkeley, Texas at Austin, Kansas, University of Washington/Seattle,” he said, adding that several St. Mike’s parents posted to Facebook how grateful they were for their students to have such an opportunity.

“I heard from a number of students from other institutions that they were paying to be there and had chosen to spend their own money, $5,000 or more for the summer, to be placed in an internship for the summer, just to get that experience,” Ayres said. Thankfully for the Saint Michael’s group, the Freeman Foundation grant (along with a small amount from the College’s Politi Endowment) covered their expenses, he said.

The Freeman Foundation international internship program provides competitive scholarships for U.S. undergraduate students to participate in internships in East or Southeast Asia. Recipients of the award are required to share their experiences with their home campuses or communities upon returning in the fall in order to fulfill the program’s goal of encouraging other students to study abroad in Asian countries and increase our overall understanding of Asian cultures.

Ayres said that he and other members the campus program steering committee – Robert Letovsky of business administration/accounting and Peggy Imai of the Study Abroad Office – aim to double the number of students attending in the coming year if funding for the latest larger grant application comes through, and they are optimistic, with even a hope to expand to other sites like Singapore in coming years. He’s glad they will have more time – an entire academic year– to recruit and prepare, as opposed to last year when the funding only came through around the winter break, meaning they had to scramble. They hope that the present summer interns, by sharing about the program once they return to campus, will help spread the word.

“The Freeman Foundation doesn’t want to support a more traditional study-abroad classroom-based program, as this is about providing real-world internship experiences and getting uncomfortable – which the first couple weeks were for our students,” Ayres said, “and these are the ways I think you develop some of the soft skills like workplace etiquette and resilience that are crucial today — being better able to respond and interact with peoples from different cultures. I think that today, in an increasingly globalized society, it is crucial.”

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