Sussex Centre for American Studies

My experience of an internship during my study year abroad in the US

From living in a small college campus town to living and working in the third biggest US city I saw two extremes of American society. The internship experience represented an opportunity to carry out research that had practical application.

By Matilda Vojak
Year Abroad: Oregon State University (2017-18)


1. Plan ahead

Back in my second year, when deciding on my list of preferred American universities for the year abroad, I prioritised universities which promoted modules with internship opportunities. Oregon State University (OSU), where I did my year abroad, was one of these. I noted that most of their courses had an internship module for example; ‘Ethnic Studies Internship’. So, keep an eye out for modules that give credit for internships. They must be unpaid to meet visa requirements. Additionally, I had been fortunate enough to win the first prize Rupert Wilkinson Scholarship and kept in mind that I wanted to use the scholarship money to support an internship.

2. Research in the US

A young woman in a coat and knitted hat stands on a shoreline on the Oregon coast. Behind her we see evergreens and water.Matilda in Oregon

Once I had settled in to life at OSU I knew I still wanted to pursue an internship so started researching potential organisations to work for. I found some in Oregon, both in Portland and in Eugene, which would mean continuing to live in Corvallis. However, I was lucky enough to have friends in Chicago who would put me up so I researched internships there too. Although I very much enjoyed my time in a small town campus I knew I wanted to experience a different state and big city, so I followed the Chicago option. Through a recommendation from a friend I found an internship opportunity I was particularly interested in. In early March I applied and then had a Skype interview. By the end of March I had secured an internship for my final term.

3. Making it happen

Although I now had the internship, I still needed to get permission from Sussex and from OSU to continue with my plan to move to Chicago. This turned out to be the toughest part of the process. So be prepared to be persistent if you want to step outside the traditional university programme.

Firstly, the ‘Ethnic Studies Internship’ was just 9 credits and I needed 12 for each term (this is important because you must fulfil the credit requirements to hold a J1 visa). Therefore, I needed to make up the rest of the credits for that term. This meant taking one class remotely from Chicago. Consequently, I had to get one of my professors on board to create a module I could complete away from OSU. I had built a good relationship with one of my professors in previous terms, having taken three of his classes. He went out of his way to support me by creating a module that would meet the credit requirements for the visa and the academic requirements from each University, allowing me to stay in Chicago.

Next, I needed to get permission from Sussex. I had to explain how the internship would benefit me and enhance my studies, while remaining within the ‘American Studies’ boundaries of academic study requirements. This meant explaining how the newly designed module (described above) would complement the internship while meeting academic expectations for my study year abroad.

Finally, I think the biggest challenge was with the OSU international office. Getting permission to move across the country and still be within my visa restrictions was slow progress. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, between myself and an international office administrator. I didn’t get signed off until days before I was due to leave for Chicago, which, while nerve-wracking, paid off in the end.

Another tip if you want to do an internship out of the state you are studying in, is not to go for campus accommodation or meal plans. I fortunately had decided to live off campus in a shared house which meant I wasn’t caught in a costly contract with the University and could leave with one month’s notice.

4. Moving to another city.

View of downtown Chicago from the highway. Skyscrapers loom into view.Downtown Chicago

I had decided to move to Chicago and I had it relatively easy because of close friends I could live with. Moving and setting up a new home was therefore relaxed and less stressful than if I’d had to think about finding a shared house again. This shouldn’t be a deterrent, but a consideration. Additionally, it is of course more expensive to get up and move across the country and my scholarship fund definitely helped with the extra expenses I had to meet.

5. What was the internship?

The internship role was working as an assistant journalist for a non-profit called The Invisible Institute. The Invisible Institute is an investigative journalism production company reporting primarily on police misconduct in the City of Chicago. They are based on the South Side of Chicago in the neighbourhood of Englewood.

My weekly tasks

My weekly responsibilities included; administrative tasks like transcriptions of interviews for the production of a podcast, proof reading prisoner questionnaires. I was always made to feel like a valued member of the team and was expected to participate in weekly meetings. I also took part in their reporting work; interviewing victims of police violence, and researching the individual police officers and records of complaints against them. One opportunity which was particularly interesting was being asked to attend Cook County Court to hear the evidence of a police officer who had been involved in the Jon Burge torture scandal in the 80s and 90s.

What I got out of it

From living in a small college campus town to living and working in the third biggest US city I saw two extremes of American society. The internship experience represented an opportunity to carry out research that had practical application. I went on to use the Invisible Institute’s Citizens Police Data Project in my dissertation. The experience also confirmed that working on social justice issues is what I wanted to do when finishing University and I now know what skills I need to develop to ensure this happens. The culture of networking is far more accepted in the US than it is here, and I learnt that networking is extremely valuable if done respectfully and intelligently. The internship represented an excellent networking opportunity and I have a continuing relationship with the Invisible Institute.

Planning and making the internship happen was hard work and at times stressful. But it was entirely worthwhile and it is one of the highlights from my year abroad.