Think Tank Researcher-in-Training

Writing about Latin America and living in our nation's capital.

My Internship Felt a Little Bit Like Summer School… And I’m Ok With That

When I applied to COHA back in February, I emphasized how my previous coursework would heavily contribute to how much of an asset I would be to COHA as a Research Associate. And don’t get me wrong–it has. I’m good at researching topics, I have a background in a pretty wide range of issues and topics surrounding the region, and I feel like I contributed to the think tank overall. But, what’s even more important is what being at COHA taught me. Setting aside the professional experience that COHA has given me, the pure fact that I was reading and writing about Latin America all summer taught me so much that I might not have learned from a class.

It was a pleasure to “create my own syllabus,” in a way. I got to choose topics that interested me, and then research them to my heart’s content. And what’s more, I wasn’t learning for the sake of getting a good grade on a test or paper. You don’t have to do a summer internship (though I would, of course, recommend it!). For the first time in my life, I was learning because I wanted to learn. I wanted to grow and become more knowledgeable about topics that interested me. This is what higher learning is about. It’s about  learning how to love learning. It’s about thirsting for knowledge and seizing opportunities to grow intellectually, without prodding from professors and parents.

I think what COHA has given me, above all else, is the gift of being an even more committed student than I already was. Beyond being interested in my classes and wanting to do well in them, I aim to look at every class this semester as an opportunity to expand and grow, both as a student and as a person. My “summer school” of endless research didn’t burn me out or turn me off to studying, but rather invigorated me. I truly feel like I’ll look at academics in a different way as  a result of my experiences here. Instead of viewing education as a means to an end (for a future internship, career, skill set, etc.), I’ll think of my education as an ends within itself, where the goal is to learn simply for the sake of learning.

As I write these words, I really couldn’t be more happy that I’ve come to this revelation. My internship experience has truly been a rich one, and one I’m so incredibly glad I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of. I’m grateful for the teachers who prepared me to be a good intern, my parents and the career center for the financial and personal support, and to COHA, for making my summer what it was.

And with that, I end my summer blog.

Until the next internship opportunity, in which I’ll probably be blogging about it again, have a good rest of your summer, dear readers.

Nicole

Building a Network

One of the awesome things about COHA (but what can also be a challenge, at times), is that you have to rely on your fellow interns in order to get anything accomplished. While it is indeed a blessing and a curse to have to rely on so many people in order to get your articles researched and properly edited, one key way I’ve found to speed up the process is by taking it upon myself to build relationships with my fellow interns. That way, I can figure out whose writing and editing style is most similar to mine, and make sure I send my pieces to them for peer edits, so that someone who’s familiar with my work is the one editing my pieces. Also, it helps to build personal relationships with your coworkers. That way, they’ll be more inclined to help you out with editing, especially when you’re in a pinch and need to get a piece in by a certain deadline.

After you’ve sent your piece through two rounds of peer edits, you’re supposed to send your piece to one of COHA’s three Senior Research Fellows for edits. Senior Research Fellows are either professors or experts in the field, who are passionate about COHA’s mission, and have volunteered their time and expertise to help edit and provide information to Research Associates working at COHA. Each Senior Research Fellow has his own area of expertise, from militaries and government structures to the education system in El Salvador, and while they’re definitely a huge help in the editing process, they’re even more valuable when it comes to coming up with a research topic, or when you’re stuck in the middle of research. They have so much detailed knowledge about Latin America, and making the effort to talk with them and utilize them as a resource is something I would stress is a good idea for any COHA intern to do.

Finally, maintaining a professional yet friendly relationship with Mr. Birns, the director, is very important. He’s the final person to edit every single one of the articles that COHA publishes, and he is extremely knowledgeable about Latin America. His wealth of information is like a fact-checker in human form, and having him as a resource is invaluable. However, he likes to challenge ideological assertions that interns make, so maintaining a good relationship with him is helpful. He’ll be more likely to hear you out when you’re explaining your point of view if he respects the work you do in the office.

Building a network within the workplace is extremely important, and nowhere is that more obvious than at a place like COHA. Hopefully my experiences here will help me in future workplace environments.

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

Off the Clock

I know I’ve talked a lot about what I do at my internship, but today I’d like to talk about what I do outside of the hours of 9 am- 5pm, Monday-Friday.

DC has lots to do, obviously, and, fortunately for us unpaid interns, a lot of it is free or inexpensive. Often, I can have an entire weekend of free entertainment, and only have to pay the cost of riding the metro, which is paid for by the Career Center internship grant I received.

When I came to DC, I didn’t know too many people, so it was often difficult to find things to do or people to do them with after work or on the weekends. Fortunately, however, I’ve become very close with my fellow interns at COHA. They all come from colleges across the country (and some from Scotland, France, and Italy!), and they’re all so fun to be around. Not only do we all share similar interests, since most of us are International Studies majors with a Latin American concentration, but I was lucky enough to find them all easy to talk to and fun to hang out with. On the weekends, we’ve gone to many of the Smithsonian museums, attended outdoor screenings of movies, and listened to free Jazz music in the Smithsonian sculpture gardens.

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^ The National Air and Space Museum!

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We also often would just hang out at one of the intern’s apartments, and bring food so we could have a sort of pot luck party.

 

We also went out to eat a lot (it’s DC! There are tons of good places to eat!) and we went to a Nationals game, and sat in the nosebleeds (which was surprisingly fun, even if the Nats lost).

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I also went to see a fun. concert right outside of DC in Maryland with a friend from high school! It was an amazing concert and probably one of the highlights of my summer!

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This summer has been a great learning experience, but what I’ve done off the clock has also been a great experience for me. I’ve met people from all over the world, taken advantage of a lot that DC has to offer, and these are some of the experiences I’ll no doubt remember long after this summer is over.

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

How Does a Think Tank Actually Work?

As a think tank, COHA relies heavily on every single person working for the organization, in order to continuously produce quality research that government officials and other professionals and academics can call upon when looking for reliable information about Latin America. While our director, Larry Birns, is the driving force behind the ideology of COHA, the interns often help keep the think tank afloat.

Every intern, in addition to being a research fellow that writes articles that will eventually be published either on the coha.org website or in the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, is also given administrative duties to help maintain the framework through which we disseminate our research. While we don’t get paid for the extra help we do around the office, fortunately my grant from the Career Center helps so that I can live pretty comfortably in the city without having to worry about getting paid while on the job. Some people help with the peer editing process on the articles, while others handle administrative tasks, as per their strengths and preferences.

Personally, I handle quite a few things around the office. I have worked on the grant writing and fundraising committee, writing letters of inquiry to foundations which might be interested in giving COHA grants. I have also worked as an office manager, managing the daily communication with outside contacts, keeping the office running smoothly, answering phone calls, setting up interviews, and helping to facilitate the constant flow of articles that are in different stages of the editing process. This very demanding role has taught me much in the way of both leadership skills and collaboration. Mr. Birns relies on the administration to work quickly and efficiently, and while the added pressure doesn’t make the office environment an especially tranquil one, knowing that you are a trusted and vital member of an organization that you are excited about working for gives the motivation to continue to work hard throughout the day.

While far from glamorous, the behind-the-scenes side of a think tank (or at least our think tank) is what allows us to keep working, and hopefully affecting the world, every day. Knowing this is what makes me excited to help lead our little non-profit as it pursues its goals of promoting the values of human rights and cooperative U.S.-Latin American relations.

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

My Daily Commute

This week is shaping up to be a scorcher in Washington. Daily, I’m cursing whoever decided to build our nation’s capital on top of a swamp. Genius. But there’s no changing the location, and no use complaining about the 90-100 degree heat every day, along with the fact that this is the week my air conditioning decided to break. Of course. As a result of these less-than-ideal conditions, a few adjustments have been made to my daily schedule. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to give you a peek at my morning routine here:

Well here’s the forecast for the week:

IMG_2377 As you can see, we’re in the middle of a heat wave. I’ve been foregoing my usual hot coffee with Thin Mint-flavored Coffeemate, and have been using the heat as an excuse to frequent my favorite coffee shop.

IMG_2375  Our dress code is business casual, but our boss has been very lax with the dress code this week, letting us err on the more casual side of business casual. A nice lightweight dress makes my 20 minute commute a little more bearable.

IMG_2376 I’m living in the Pi Beta Phi Chapter House at George Washington University, so I’ve been really happy to connect with some sisters from a different chapter! It also gives me an excuse to display some Pi Phi pride. :)

IMG_2380 Since GWU is located in a sort of odd location, it takes longer to get to DuPont Circle (where COHA is located) by metro than it does to walk. It’s pretty unfortunate on hot days or when it’s raining, because my commute is doubled when I take the metro, so I’m always trying to weigh the costs versus benefits of avoiding the unpleasant weather in exchange for getting up earlier. Getting up later and enduring the weather usually wins out.

IMG_2382 On my way to work, I pass my favorite restaurant in D.C., Founding Farmers. It’s a farm-to-table restaurant that is absolutely delicious. I’ve already been there twice, and am planning on going at least one more time before I leave. That’s saying a lot, since I don’t usually like to repeat restaurants, since there are so many options in the city.

IMG_2383 And next door to Founding Farmers is the IMF. It’s pretty cool to be passing by organizations on my daily commute that I’m only used to learning about in class.

IMG_2384 About halfway through my commute, I stop by Filter. While Starbucks or Caribou Coffee are both solid standbys, I really prefer to support local businesses. And aside from that, the prices here are cheaper and the coffee is even better, usually! The only thing it really lacks that Starbucks and Caribou both have is variety. You can’t get a campfire s’mores latter at Filter, that’s for sure. However, the ambiance and quality basics more than make up for it.

IMG_2387 Today, I ordered my usual, which is an iced Chai latte and a chocolate chip scone. Delicious!

IMG_2388 Finally, I arrive at the office. (Don’t mind the time on the clock–I arrive before 9 am, but I took this picture closer to 10 am.) The intern space isn’t exactly glamorous, but I’ve gotten used to it, and enjoy working close with the other interns.

And that’s my morning in a nutshell!

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

Take Advantage of Free Events!

A tip to all you readers out there:

Free events are the best. If you live in a big city, especially one like D.C. where there are tons of young professionals and people trying to get their agenda across to wide audiences, there are bound to be many free events offered in your area that are specific to your interests. Using databases like Linktank, talking to your coworkers and other interns you come into contact with, and Google searching for event calendars at your favorite non-profits are all ways find events that interest you.

What’s great about these events, aside from the  information you’ll gain and the free food (which you shouldn’t underestimate–feeding yourself in a city is expensive!) is that you also have the opportunity to meet people and make connections with people in a field that you’re interested in. If you talk to the other people attending or even hosting the event, you won’t have to worry about searching for topics of conversation. Clearly, since you’re both there, you share at least some interests! That makes the whole idea of networking a lot less intimidating, if you ask me. In the past, I had always worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a good impression when meeting someone who works in the field that I want to work in when I’m older. Now, however, I’ve found that as long as you can identify your common interests, it’s a lot easier to take the leap into the world of networking.

Today, I’ve been to one event held at the Capitol about Cuba, where I learned a lot about the U.S.’s stance on Cuba and met some interesting people, and later this evening I will be attending a networking party, hosted by the former Latin American correspondent for the New York Times. I can’t stress enough how important it is to network. Even if nothing comes from your first few interactions, at least you’ll have had some practice with networking, so that you can make an even better impression later on.

 

In other news, I’ve been published a few more times! You can check out the articles here:

  • http://www.coha.org/23156/
  • http://www.coha.org/does-the-most-recent-conviction-of-farc-leaders-mark-the-end-of-peace-talks-for-colombia/

The first article is about the current riots in Brazil, and the second is about the peace talks between the Colombian government, and the FARC, a Marxist rebel group that has been attempting to stage a revolution for approximately 50 years.

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

Some Exciting News and Some Interview Tips

Things at COHA have been going well so far. This post is going to seem a little bit scattered, but I want to talk about what I’ve been doing so far at COHA, what the expectations of the interns are, and also give some more detailed interview tips, since my last post was a bit lacking in that department.

First off, the interns at COHA are the muscles of the non-profit. We run administrative tasks, as well conducting research that is guaranteed to be published either on the COHA website  www.coha.org) or on our subscription-only publication, the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, or WRH. This, however, does not mean that it’s easy to get things published. Each article, no matter the length, goes through a minimum of five rounds of edits, though oftentimes there are six or seven rounds. COHA has a very strict style of writing that needs to be adhered to, and each piece is also subjected to rigorous fact checking, so that we can be assured that each and every article published under COHA’s domain is one we can all be proud of. I’m currently going through my first round of edits on a research piece about Conditional Cash Transfer programs in Brazil and Mexico. I’m also working on co-authoring an op-ed about the current state of the revolts in Brazil, and what that means both socially and politically for that nation.

But before any intern works on a research piece, he or she must write a letter to the editor. This is a sort of rite of passage for any cohista, and even these short pieces are put through the five rounds of edits. I wrote a letter to the editor of Diario las Américas, a Miami-based Spanish speaking newspaper. The letter I wrote was in response to an article in which the author questions whether or not the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, will comply with Ecuador’s constitution and leave office after his term as president is over, or if he will try to change the constitution, so that he can re-run. After writing my article, I sent it to the newspaper, not really expecting a response. However, to my delight, my letter to the editor was published, and can be seen here: http://www.diariolasamericas.com/noticia/156934/46/cartas-al-director . (That was my part about the exciting news!)

With regard to successful interviewing, here are some tips that I’ve accumulated by listening to the advice of others, and through my own experience.

  • Make sure you dress the part. I firmly believe that a good interview outfit can make or break an interview. Not only will the interviewer be judging you based upon your appearance (It’s only natural!), but looking your best will help you to feel more confident. Which brings me to my next point…
  • Confidence is key. No matter how nervous you are, try not to act it. It helps if you’ve done extensive research on the organization, so you’ll know what you’re talking about and be able to ask intelligent questions at the end of the interview. And even if you don’t feel confident, fake it until you make it, to use a trite phrase. The organization wants to hire the best interns possible, so it’s your job to convince the interviewer that you are the best intern possible! (Even if you’re not sure that you are.) Play up your strengths during the interview and make sure that you convey how your strengths would make a positive impact at the organization.
  • But don’t oversell it. Interviewers are going to be able to tell if you’re lying. Play up your strengths, but don’t stretch the truth or lie about what you’re capable of. Even if you get away with it during the interview, it’s going to be pretty obvious you lied about a skill if when you get to the job, you can’t perform to the level you had previously boasted you were able to.
  • Anticipate the obvious questions. I have never once been interviewed without being asked, “So tell me about yourself.” And, trust me, there is nothing more nerve-wracking than realizing you haven’t prepared an answer to this inevitable question. (Oops.)

Hopefully these tips help! If you have any more questions or just want to learn more about COHA, feel free to comment below!

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole

Finding an Internship I Felt Passionate About

Time really has been flying by with my internship. I’m working hard from 9-5 with my fellow interns at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA from now on), and each day is equal parts challenging and rewarding.

But before I start to describe what it’s like to be an intern at COHA, or a Cohista, I want to talk about how I secured this internship in the first place.

Ever since starting college, I’ve tried to make the most of my summers by engaging in some sort of job or internship that would help strengthen what I learn in the classroom and teach me a few new things along the way. Last summer, I taught Spanish to first and second graders. This summer, looking to focus more on the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies aspect of my fields of study, I sought the advice of one of my professors, Professor Ruhl, and asked him where he thought I should apply for an internship for the summer of 2013. His first suggestion was that I apply to COHA. A friend of mine who is a rising senior at Dickinson had interned here during the summer of 2012, so I had heard of the organization before, though I knew very little of it. That evening, I did some research, and found that COHA’s mission fell in line with issues and fields of research that I’m passionate about. Specifically, COHA seeks to encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards the Western hemisphere. Also, COHA aspires to cultivate the next generation of informed leaders in the public and political sector, who will be equipped to effectively address the current and future issues of the region.

(And before you ask, no, I didn’t copy that from the website. One of my early assignments was to reword the mission statement, as well as the goals and objectives for COHA, so what you read above was an excerpt from that. I thought that was kinda cool.)

Anyway, after researching the internship and sending in all of my application materials, I got a call from COHA, asking for an interview. What I didn’t know then was that the Founder and Director of COHA, Larry Birns, only interviews those who he feels would be a strong fit for the organization. If I had known that, maybe I would have been a little more at ease during the interview. I probably nervously laughed a little more than I’m proud to admit, but fortunately they offered me the position of Research Associate, which I gladly accepted.

Details on what it’s like to be a Cohista (and what it’s like to live in D.C.!) in my upcoming posts.

Hasta la próxima,

Nicole