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The last word: on 'real world' learning

The last word: on 'real world' learning

Toward the end of my third year of undergraduate studies, I realized I had few concrete ideas of the type of career I wanted to pursue. While I had gained a broad theoretical foundation in my discipline and developed skills in research, writing and critical analysis, I wasn’t sure what kind of environment I would most enjoy working in – more importantly, I wasn’t sure if I was even employable! In one year I would be graduating with a major in global development studies and a minor in political studies and I felt it was time to sacrifice my summer income to gain some much-needed professional experience. I applied to be an intern with the U.S. Department of State at its ­mission to the Organization for Economic ­Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, the city where I had just finished a year-long ­academic exchange. To my delight, they offered me the position.

On my first day as an intern I hit the ground running. I joined the delegation for the OECD’s most important event of the year – the annual high-level ministerial conference meeting. From the very beginning I was thrown directly into the action, alongside my American Foreign Service colleagues at the OECD. As a newcomer to this type of environment, I remember feeling a sense of awe at the level of responsibility with which I was entrusted. Over the course of my three-month internship, I was able to participate in and contribute to a wide range of activities to support the U.S. mission to the OECD. I attended committee meetings and provided notes and summaries to relevant departments in Washington. I was ­assigned to tasks related to the mission’s diplomatic activities, including coordinating the ­participation of U.S. government officials and ­assisting with official receptions. I helped to write diplomatic cables, supplied briefing notes for high-ranking officers and contributed to background packages for major government negotiations. In three months, I picked up a set of skills I never had the chance to develop in my university courses. I was challenged to keep up on complex issues, I learned the importance of strong communication and initiative, and I gained a few key ­references in the process.

Although I had resolved to undertake a professional work experience with or without academic credit attached, I was very fortunate to be eligible for a work-study course that would count toward my degree and incorporate an in-class element following my internship. With this, I reasoned, ­although I was not being paid for my position, the work I put in would have the same end-value as my other university courses. I have now completed the entire work-study course offered by the Department of Global Development Studies. I can say with confidence that the entire experience has enriched my degree and provided valuable insight to help direct my future goals. The course component helped me to reflect on my “real world” experience in an academic setting, so that I could integrate what I had learned in my internship with my formal studies. I developed a new understanding of both the strengths and the shortcomings of academia. My eyes were opened to the diverse routes that exist into careers in ­international relations or public policy, and I returned to campus with a renewed sense of exactly what I wanted to get out of my time at Queen’s – and what I was studying so hard for!

Sarah McCurrach, Artsci’15, plans to continue to build on her “real world” experience by working in Toronto next year before pursuing graduate studies in public ­policy.

PIC: Sarah McCurrach, back on campus after her Paris internship.


[cover of Queen's Review 2015-1]