As I come to the end of my six-month stay in Hanoi, I contemplate what led me to embark on my global-trotting career path. Over the past three years since graduation, I’ve lived in five countries. It began with a summer internship with the Naval Heritage Command (National Museum of U.S. Navy) in Washington, D.C. It was July 2013, and this was my first work experience in another country, let alone another continent! Whilst there, I was lucky to meet a number of inspiring young people from across the U.S., Canada, and the UK. Several years later, the achievements of these individuals are truly exceptional; one became a consultant in a top UK firm, another was recently the Assistant Attorney General of Chuuk state, Micronesia.

I’m sharing my experiences now because I don’t think that there has ever been a more important time to promote international ties through exchanges, study abroad programmes, and internships. It sometimes seems as though countries are more intent on closing borders and drawing lines, instead of fostering connections between the individuals in different locations, who together, form international communities. For a British citizen abroad, updates on Brexit and ongoing news of the migrant crisis in Europe remind me that we’re living through both a divisive and decisive time in international relations. As a historian, however, I am reminded that this has often seemed to be case, and previous centuries sought their own solutions to issues which still pose a global risk today.

Cross-cultural exchange exposes us to different mindsets and allows us to develop a sense of world-views which exist beyond the place we consider home. This encounter with the unfamiliar enriches our personal lives in the form of unexpected aspirations, a passion for new things, or even the chance to do activities and make connections which may never have otherwise become available. It also appears that these kinds of exchanges may be particularly beneficial for social mobility, something which both the UK (see Steven Hutt’s article from the British Council in China) and the U.S. (the non-profit Project Rosseau is a great example) are striving to increase.

As a microcosm, I’ll illustrate how another internship, in the summer of 2014 – a year after coming to the U.S. for the first time – changed my life. I spent just over two weeks at the Zhuhai campus of Beijing Normal University (on the south coast of the Chinese mainland, just opposite Hong Kong) and worked on a short research project with Chinese students. I became interested in Chinese characters and how different they were from the Roman alphabet. I also started to really think about what it was like to live in a culture which was informed by a history and literature which was completely unknown to me, namely the historic influences of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

Fast-forward four years and the effects of these couple of weeks is astounding. My internship in Zhuhai was the first time that I had ever been to Asia, and it gave me the courage to become a teaching assistant with the British Council in Greater Noida, near New Delhi. Whilst there, I realised just how useful it would be for me to learn a foreign language myself, and why not Mandarin Chinese?

This became a reality when I applied for, and was accepted into a British Council scholarship at Shandong Normal University, Jinan (the “normal” here simply emphasises that this university focuses on training teachers). I enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve endeavoured to keep up with my language learning, and have since undertaken Chinese lessons in Bangladesh and Vietnam (where a knowledge of Chinese characters has been useful in understanding Vietnamese history and modern day ancestor-worship).

In short, the effects of my initial international work experience, the confidence gained from subsequent trips, and the skills gained from studying in China have changed the direction of my career. Ultimately, during my time abroad, I developed as a person in ways that academic study at university could only partially achieve. My hope now is to encourage more organizations – and educational institutions especially – to develop international ties and to encourage more people to go beyond what they know in order to realize more clearly what they could be. Ultimately, languages barriers are surmountable, and cultural differences serve only to educate individuals on the values of tolerance, plurality, and strength in diversity.

Has your interest in internationally focused internships increased as a result of Nikita’s post? Consider applying for an International Relations Council internship for the spring 2019 semester. Application information is available on the IRC website, and the deadline to apply is Friday, October 26.

About the Author

Nikita Hayward graduated from the University of Oxford where her studies focused on the relationship between history and English literature. She has taught in India with the British Council, and spent a semester learning Mandarin Chinese in Jinan, China. Last year she worked for a semester at the Asian University for Women, in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and has since moved to Hanoi, Vietnam.