My virtual internship with the Department of State

This story was published in FIU News by Yenisleidy Simon Mengana.

Name: Sabrina Pecorelli

Hometown: Florence, Italy

Major: International relations, political science, certificate in Middle Eastern studies. Global Learning Medallion student.

Where are you interning? Bureau of Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State

What is your title? Virtual student federal Service intern, Latin America team leader

How did you get your internship?

I was enrolled in FIU’s Diplomacy Lab, which is an Honors course that conducts research in partnership with the Department of State. My group was tasked with researching the human rights violations in the extractive industries of Latin America, and our project focused on a Canadian gold mine in Argentina called Veladero. Our supervisor and liaison to the State Department was a retired Foreign Service Officer who currently works at the Bureau of Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

When Diplomacy Lab finished and the spring semester ended, she offered me a chance to continue working with her on other research during the summer. So, I applied to the Virtual Student Federal Service, and I got accepted into her project.

What were you doing there?

During the summer when I was an active intern, my country of focus was Guatemala, and I was specifically looking at the violence toward environmental defenders and indigenous leaders. I compiled an in-depth analysis of such violence and created a 150 slide PowerPoint presentation that I will present to the American embassy in Guatemala City in November.

During the fall semester, although my internship period technically ended, I was asked to remain in my position as Latin America team leader and supervise incoming interns. I was then assigned four new interns to mentor, and I am currently guiding them on the research process and helping them create their own in-depth case studies. I am also still working on the Guatemala project and hope to present it to the embassy in the coming weeks.

Tell us more about your project?

I looked at specific incidents of violence in Guatemala across different sectors of industry, including mining, hydroelectric and palm oil. The mining sector was the most violent, with more than 20 killings of environmental defenders in the last 5 years, while hydropower followed closely with approximately 12. I also analyzed the causes and factors behind the violence, providing key takeaways and policy recommendations to both the U.S. embassy in Guatemala and the Guatemalan government.

How does your internship connect back to your coursework?

While the internship does not directly correlate with my coursework, it helped me understand larger trends and patterns in a country’s international and domestic affairs, which I am now applying to my classes. The internship was on Latin America with a heavy focus on Guatemala, but my certificate and field of study is the Middle East, and while these are very different areas of the world, it was interesting to see how they operate.

Outside the classroom, my involvement in the Global Learning Medallion had prepared me for the kind of broad-minded thinking that was required in the internship. I felt ready for the challenges and the research and was able to excel because of my global learning experience.

What is the coolest thing about your internship or that has happened during your internship?

At the end of the internship, all of the interns got the chance to meet with Jonathan Moore, the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs. We had an hour-long Zoom meeting with him where we got to ask him questions and learn more about his experience in foreign service. He was incredibly friendly and really talkative; he told us all about his past foreign service officer tours in Bosnia and Namibia. It was really interesting to learn about his career and how he got to be acting assistant secretary.

What have you enjoyed most about your experience?

While I have enjoyed every part of this internship—from researching such important issues to meeting so many diverse people and growing in a leadership position—the thing I enjoyed most is that it was virtual. In the time of a global pandemic when every shred of normalcy had been stripped from our lives, it was comforting to have an opportunity to connect with others and to do some meaningful work. The virtual internship allowed me to forget about the state of the world for a little while; it gave me something to do and helped me keep my mind busy while also staying safe in the comfort of my home. I loved being able to connect with others interns across the country and talk about our experiences.

What have you learned about yourself?

I learned that I can be a great leader. I was pushed into this major leadership position without much of a choice; my classmates nominated me as team leader during Diplomacy Lab and when we transitioned into the VSFS internship, our supervisor asked me to remain as team leader because she thought I had done a great job. I mainly managed all four Latin America interns, and I was in charge of coordinating with the Asia team and the Africa team. I think I did really well mainly with communication between the interns and with our superiors. I hosted biweekly meetings, was in charge of deadline and due dates, coordinated the group chat, and sent notes after every meeting. I learned that I can be a great leader, and I will definitely keep aiming for leadership positions in future internships.

What advice do you have for those beginning the internship process?

My advice is to apply for everything! Do not overlook the smaller opportunities or the ones that do not exactly fit your career choice. Almost any internship is better than no internship. You will still gain valuable interpersonal, leadership, and communication skills, which will help in the future.

Even though this internship was not in the same field that I want to work in, I still learned so much and made so many amazing connections. The quality of my research has improved immensely, and I definitely feel more comfortable and confident for any future position.

How has the position increased your professional confidence?

This internship has skyrocketed my professional confidence. First, it’s a really strong entry on my resume that always gets people interested so I feel confident when I apply to other opportunities. Second, I feel ready for almost any other internship or position that I am applying to. I gained such valuable research skills and professional experience that I feel very confident I will excel in any future opportunities.

How has the internship expanded your professional network?

During the internship, I made a lot of connections within the Department of State, which is where I want to work in the future. My supervisor is helping me get an internship for the spring semester in Washington, D.C., as well as helping me find work after graduation. She connected me with other foreign service officers who’ve helped me on applications for the State Department. I also got a letter of recommendation from Jonathan Moore, the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs. So overall, my professional network expanded a lot because of this internship, and it’s been helping me grow and find new opportunities.

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