living downstream

The film “Living Downstream” really does sum up and epitomize our semester, in terms of the idea that we must be more conscious about how our actions effect others. This idea is highlighted and narrated by Sarah Steingraber and her personal experiences, namely with cancer. Steingraber’s testimonial and overall narrative do an excellent job at framing how our society has become complacent with regard to our neighbors and overall community. Steingraber’s bout with cancer and the elevated levels of cancer that we have seen not only in our society, but in indigenous communities, highlights the fact that are actions have no bounds in this world where chemicals do not break down and carbon emissions are virtually unregulated. Due to this paradigm, our society and global community is susceptible to harms that are both unpredictable and difficult to understand where the harms are coming from. Through technological progress, we have begun to understand how we can avoid these harms and that they come from chemicals that we produce as human beings. But how do we live more aware of what lies downstream?

I believe that ultimately we have a responsibility that we have failed to fulfill as the world’s most educated and privileged individuals: looking out for everyone else. I understand that the global system is anarchic, but I firm believe that we have to fulfill a “good neighbor” policy since we have the ability to provide knowledge for the rest of the world. This means not only thinking about how our actions might effect those “living downstream” from us, but also the fact that we must sometimes travel “downstream”. This idea refers to traveling to the developing world and spreading values such as environmentalism to places who do not always have the education necessary to understand it. It is people like Steingraber who represent those who receive the short end of the stick with regard to our societies’ negligence. If we take more trips downstream and witness more cases like those of Steingraber, we might finally become more conscious of preserving the state of our environment and society.

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why not nature?

I grew up in a cul-de-sac in a typical Boston suburban neighborhood filled with plenty of children my age, some older and some younger. Yet despite this seemingly ideal setup, my brother and sister and I were usually the only ones outside playing in our yard. Seldom did you see other kids playing tag, shooting basketball hoops or building forts in the woods. Rarely did you even see adults out and about in the yard, unless it was to tend to the gardens or the lawn. It wasn’t until I became older that I realized the tragedy that has befallen the privileged world, especially in the United States, where people have been torn from nature by horribly boring and brain melting activities, including Xbox, Playstation, cable television, game boys and the list goes on. For some reason, our culture has become conditioned to think that nature is no longer entertainment and nourishment for the soul, but a resource. Few would even call it a necessity as rapid urbanization has shown that living in cities can often be cheaper and even more sustainable. So why do we even need nature? Why do we need the trees or someone who speaks for the trees like the Lorax?

It is my firm belief that nature is a conduit for personal understanding and discovery. Think about kids who sit about and stare at screens all day; do their critical thinking develop at any level? Especially about bigger questions about themselves or the world around them? My guess is no. While they might learn how to defeat level 34 on Mario Kart, they are not thinking about why the trees lose all their leaves in the winter or why birds fly south for the winter. This kind of curiosity and inquisitive nature is what leads to a child’s ability to question the bigger things in life at a more mature level. And don’t even get me started on the question of intrapersonal skills! For too long have we allowed children to stay away from on of the best teachers to provoke thought and curiosity. Vote nature for teacher of the year!

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millenials vs. baby boomers

The generational gap between baby boomers and millenials with regard to environmental awareness is sharply stark. Even my parents who are the products of a northeastern liberal arts college would admit that little to none of their education emphasized terms such as acid rain, green politics or carbon sequestration. In fact, while their leftist and liberal institution might have been at the forefront of this movement, they still associated these terms and concerns with radicals and hippies. How is it that 25 years later, they have learned to appreciate the weight of these words? That they have begun to orient their social, political and economic values so that they align with policy makers who prioritize these issues. I believe that this movement has finally reached critical mass. Baby boomers who are amongst the first generations to have received college degrees are now the ones who are making the decisions. While my parents may not have paid much attention to these terms 25 years ago, their education prepared them to understand the complexity of issues like climate change today when the science and data were available to support it.

As a member of the millenial generation, I believe that it is our responsibility to continue this awareness and education which began with our parents generation. This means that we have the knowledge earlier than they ever did and have to use it to create more positive change! Essentially, I am trying to say that we understand the problems and issues at an earlier stage in our life and can act now and for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, our parents became educated earlier and were prepared to understand these issues once they came to the forefront. Imagine where we might be if they had this education 25 years ago? If these folks hadn’t been regarded as hippies but as legitimate activists, can you imagine the bounds and strides we might have made and where we would be today?

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is “poverty” inescapable?

When you hear the word poverty, what comes to mind? Before taking this class, the first thing I would think of would be beggars in New York City who loitered outside of McDonalds or Dunkin Donuts, shaking old coffee cups that contained several pieces of change. It meant the soup kitchen Pine Street Inn in South Boston where I used to volunteer with my church on the first Sunday of the month. Essentially, I was taught to believe that it was an unfortunate situation that was self-perpetuating and inescapable for those who inhabited within. And while this foundational understanding of poverty is not wrong, my time at Dickinson and especially in this class has taught me how it is certainly self-perpetuating, but not necessarily inescapable.

Two themes/events in our course helped me to better understand this complex landscape of what poverty meant. The first was our study of environmental injustice, while the second was the talk, “Poverty in America” given by the head of Carlisle Cares. Both discussions were very different and not always in the same vein, but they represent the comprehensive and wide ranging nature of how many diverse connotations are associated with the word “poverty”.

Studying environmental injustice was probably my biggest “aha!” moment of our course, as it brought together many different altruistic and worthy ideas that simply made sense. In other words, I never had put together how helpless the poor are when it comes to standing up for their own human rights. They are often the victims of energy refineries or waste facilities that do not properly dispose of their runoff. This creates health hazards and problems that cannot always be detected or exactly linked/diagnosed back to the horrible big corporations who are polluting their environment. Due to their low socioeconomic status, their voice has little effect on policy makers abilities to keep these hazards out of their backyard. Comparatively, members of the upper classes are spared these hazards because they can lobby policy makers more effectively, or simply can afford to move away from these sites. The poor have never been able to create this change and have long suffered these environmental injustices and will continue to unless advocacy is brought to their cause. In such a way, environmental injustice is self-perpetuated throughout generations of poor populations.

 

The “Poverty in America” talk gave me a different side of the same coin (keep in mind, this coin has more than 2 sides…) as the president of Carlisle Cares shared experiences about traveling around the country staying in homeless shelters. The conditions she described were often downright disgusting and really made me question the nature of these establishments. It made me question why we don’t have someone regulating or providing these services with more amenities and quality. In the same sense as the environmental injustice issue, why don’t we have someone or something standing up for these people? Similar to the marginalized and victimized communities described above, homeless people who the speaker had met, did not have any advocates or people watching out for them. Nor did they have the resources to obtain such advocacy (whether self or otherwise) in order to achieve their human rights. This made me think about how poverty isn’t inescapable, but simply neglected. While I am still a moderate and give credit to social programs that have ameliorated healthcare, education and other services for the poor, the talk made me think about how little advocacy there is for all marginalized members of “poverty”. I wish their was a way to create more support and awareness for their causes and I look forward to doing my very best to make others aware!

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sometimes I don’t understand what the environmental movement wants to me believe

In this week’s reading of Cradle to Cradle, I realized how confused I sometimes become when examining the environmental movement and initiatives that McDonough & Braungart, Orr and others discuss in their work. The confusion struck me when we were discussing pipelines in class the other day and how a reading pointed out that if the pipelines were not built, then the oil from the tar sands would reach refineries via train and truck. This would bring even greater haste to our climate’s change! In chapter three, “Eco-Effectiveness”, McDonough and Braungart point out that “efficiency” should not always be sought after and that over-efficiency can be just as detrimental to the environment. For example, food production in East Germany was far less efficient than food production in West Germany because western farming practices were more modern and innovative. While this allowed them to produce more crops, it also created more detrimental effects to the environment, such as soil erosion, carbon emissions, destruction of bio-diversity, etc. I understand why this sort of over-efficiency is not great, but when you zoom out and look at the whole picture, East Germany and other satellite states who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain suffered from mass-starvation because of the implementation of antiquated practices by the Communist regime. I would argue that over-efficiency which eroded soil and increased carbon emissions was worth it in order to feed the masses!

I don’t know, maybe this idea is kind of half baked but I really do think that I have often seen these authors run into problems with the answers they propose. Meaning the answers they propose turn out to be more problematic and environmentally harmful than the original way that humans go about our lives (farming, consuming, traveling, etc.). Are we chasing our tails to find an answer to problems that are actually far simpler than they seem to be? Do we pursue the answers that seem more sustainable just because they are the “path less traveled”? My hope is that the environmental movement becomes one that is more concerned with staying level headed and finding solutions that are actually more sustainable instead of those that seem more green.

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its more than just a pipeline

After the Pipelines in PA discussion on Monday night, I felt somewhat unsatisfied about what I had learnt. While the panelists gave compelling arguments, I did not think that they gave well rounded, cost benefit analysis of the positive and negative effects of a pipeline in Pennsylvania. If I were to make my own informed decision, I would need to hear both sides of the story. What are the benefits of a pipeline like Keystone? And more importantly, are they worth the negative consequences they might have for our environment?

In short, my research presented me with the idea that the Keystone Pipeline would not actually have super devastating immediate impacts on the environment and not significantly contribute to climate change. However this does NOT mean that I support it! Instead my findings showed me that in the last six years, the government’s decision on the Pipeline has served as a “litmus test” for their commitment to stopping climate change. According to the New York Times  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/25/us/pol…, be sure to check out the awesome video), this is thanks to environmental activists groups commitment to making the pipeline a symbol anti-climate change policies. So even though the Pipeline might not have devastating immediate effects on the environment, it gives the government a chance to deny infrastructure that reinforces our dependence on fossil fuels.

“If we’re building infrastructure, lets build infrastructure that leaves global warming behind” comments Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the New York Times mini film about the Pipeline. While not only reinforcing dependence on fossil fuels, the Pipeline will not be super economically viable in the coming months and years due to falling oil prices. Lower prices are making profits and plans for the Pipeline less practical, which is finally prompting the United States to move in a different direction with regard to how we obtain energy. If we are so interested in obtaining energy independence, why don’t we design more eco-friendly energy infrastructure and not put a band-aid on the fossil fuel problem.

To wrap up, basically what I have learned in the last week starting with the Pipelines in PA discussion, is that while the Pipeline may not be a massive contributor to climate change, it is still a contributor. A contributor that furthers the fossil fuel industry that is guilty of causing the most release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So why add something that only furthers that problem, while only adding a few more jobs and only putting a band aid on the real issue of climate change? No, I believe that we are in a unique space to become the leader on climate change and move in a more sustainable direction (and apparently so did President Obama, as he just yesterday exercised his veto power). In the words of President Obama at the last State of the Union, “Let’s set our sights higher than a single pipeline.”

 

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the demise of capitalism within these limestone walls

I was very struck by Chapter 10 “The Problem of Sustainability” in David Orr’s Hope is an Imperative by the author’s explanation of the end of our capitalistic system. While Orr and others usually spend time hating our modern world system, this was the first time I saw him explain not only why capitalism was bad, but also why it was doomed to fail. Orr offers Schumpeter’s words in this chapter, saying “there is in a capitalist system, a tendency for self destruction” as the premise for the idea that there is no need to implement a new world order, but that capitalism will bring it through its own demise.

I will not spend time repeating the condemnations of the capitalist system. The more we consume, the more we waste and the more we harm the planet. But something that Orr mentions is how the system’s own paradigm will bring about its own fall. This refers mainly to the behavior of consumers in the capitalistic society and their tendencies to consume at an extremely fast rate. This fuels economic growth and generally means that the society experiencing growth is successful. However, Orr cites authors who believe that like nature, the consumer’s tendency to consume is a finite phenomena. Eventually “a business civilization inevitably becomes more “hollow” as material goods fail to satisfy deeper needs, including those for truth and meaningful work.” This serves to “erode the ‘spirit’ of capitalism” and will lead to the demise of the system. Now let me tell you why I identify with that ideal.

During my time at Dickinson, I have worked at two non-profits. One in Carlisle and one in New York City. While my strong passion for social justice drove me to find those internships, once I was there I realized how fulfilling and impactful my life had become. I was not a cog in a machine at a huge insurance company or just some guy who could design websites. I was running the social media campaign for a non-profit who helps to prevent genocide around the world, or helping local citizens turn the heat back on in their homes. After my second internship ended, I came to realize the unsustainable nature of non-profits and started to explore how non-profits could be more self-sufficient. My search led me to discover the world of corporate social responsibility, a field which helps large corporations learn how to be more responsible with the communities where they engage and operate.

Why am I bragging to you about how I want to do good in the world? Because I am only one of countless Dickinsonians who have their own stories about how they want their careers to be meaningful and impactful ones. Careers that do not just depend on salary and how much they can therefore consume or buy, but careers that benefit their local and global communities. I believe that the time and space where Dickinson exists right now, is what lead us to become such conscientious citizens who are not interested in continuing the treadmill. Today, a Dickinsonian’s education is much more focused on answering the question “How can I positively impact the world around me?” instead of “How can I benefit from the world around me?” This existence and identity is thanks to Dickinson’s presence in not only capitalistic America, but socialist France, communist China and dictatorial Cameroon. Our on campus curriculums coupled with off campus studies allow Dickinsonians to understand that the treadmill of consumer capitalism is not the only option. Understanding the alternatives means that Dickinsonians are also prompted to find those truthful and meaningful careers and lifestyles. Whether or not Orr’s theory for the self-destruction of capitalism exists outside the limestone or not, I do firmly believe that it exists on these hallowed grounds.

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the self-interested American

My friend Austin made a comment last class period that really made me think; “Why is government the most important player in this eco-movement?” While I hate to admit it, government has an enormous impact on the success or the failure of the whether our society becomes more green minded. This scares the hell out of me because as an International Studies major, I have been taught how individualized state actors are in the international system. The anarchic international system holds no checks or balances to keep states from producing less carbon emissions or investing in renewable energy sources. Since I am of the realist paradigm, I am doubtful of the idea that states would do something that is not in their own self-interest. Realism posits that states act in their own self-interest and one states gain is another states loss. Therefore, states are unlikely to implement green policies unless they believe it is in their own self-interest. Within democratic countries (which I will discuss for the sake of sanity in this conversation), this boils down to what are the interests of individual constituents.

In the United States, Americans are self-interested and short-sighted folks who are not interested in prioritizing green policies. Fortunately we have seen a major shift towards enacting environmental policies, instead of only considering domestic economic growth. I believe that the reason for this shift is due to a marked increase in individuals (83% of Americans) who believe that climate change exists and 48% believe that they are more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who supports fighting climate change. Unfortunately these same constituents still do not prioritize these policies ahead of issues such as unemployment rate and other factors of domestic economic growth. This is because Americans are more keen on finding jobs and becoming richer. Therefore their representatives will continue to enact policies that reflect their wishes. This means policies that are not aligned with the environmental movement (i.e. carbon taxes, eco-friendly construction standards, support of the fossil fuel/energy sector, etc) because ultimately, this will benefit their constituents with jobs and wages.

I really do hate being cynical, but I am afraid that my realist tendencies have gotten the best of me. How do we change this American self-interest and therefore the barriers which prevent change? I believe that eco-friendly measures ought to be more palpable and incentivized by the government. While representatives will always make decisions which benefit their constituents top interests, it doesn’t mean they cannot implement programs which incentivize green progress. Basically instead of doing something that harms constituents interests, encourage them to act in their best interest. For example, instead of  introducing a tax on carbon emissions for the corporations they work for, create a reward for the corporations who are environmentally conscious. And make it a financial reward. Somehow, make green initiatives something sexy and sought after instead of something that people are obligated to do by law. By creating policies which are in their immediate self-interest, Americans will be able to sink their teeth into making change without having to wrap their head around the idea that the planet will be destroyed in 50, 100 or 1,000 years. Plain and simple, Americans are dumb and selfish, and government needs to cater these qualities if we want to see national progress in the environmental movement.

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first month

Its’ been over a month since I landed in Yaoundé along with 9 other Dickinsonians. After going through a honeymoon period during the first week, we ran into a period of difficulty and sickness during the second week. Some might call this reality. During this third week, we all seem to have accepted and swallowed a lot of these challenges. Please note: these challenges have NOT kept us from discovering a beautiful culture and way of life that is present in Cameroon. Every difficulty has exposed us to a different aspect of Cameroonian culture and left us with endless stories. I hope to share certain aspects of culture on this blog periodically throughout the semester. In this way, I can give you a peek into the challenging yet fulfilling experience we face every day down here. **I got a little carried away, so if you don’t have time to read this enormously long post, I’ve italicized the important parts**

 

Taxis-             What is public transportation? In Yaoundé the only way to get around the city is by taxis that dominate the streets. I am not kidding when I say that for every 1 regular car there are 3 taxis. The taxis are private enterprises that just need to be registered with the government to operate. So basically if you have a car that runs and you pay a registration fee, anybody with a license can drive. A typical taxi is an early 1990s Toyota or Honda that is painted yellow and is in rough shape. I truly doubt that the majority of them would pass inspection in the states.

The way that taxis operate is very unique, as they will pick up multiple people going to different destinations around Yaoundé. A taxi driver will pick his (have not seen one female driver) route based on where his passengers are going. Therefore he finds customers who are going to the same neighborhoods or places that are on the route. The typical fare is 200 francs (0.40 cents) however if you’re going further (such as across the city) it is customary to propose a higher fare. Proposing a smaller fare is appropriate if you’re going a shorter distance (such as from one adjacent neighborhood to another). A driver will slowly drive by unmarked, yet established, taxi stands (how everyone knows where they are is beyond me) and will listen as people tell him where they are going. If he is going that direction he will give them a nod and a beep, which means that he accepts their offer. If he is not going that direction he will keep driving. The result is that you end up in a taxi with people you don’t know and going to potentially different neighborhoods. It’s cool because you get to discover new areas of the city, but sometimes frustrating when you are late to where you are going. Basically what we have here is an organized hitchhiking network.

 

Going out in public- Jaws all on the floor, acting like they never seen a white person before!! (Eminem song lyrics) Every time we go out in public, it’s a show. Whether it’s walking home or down the street to the store or at a bar, everyone is always staring at us. Many times people will call out “la blanche/le blanc” (white woman/white man) and point and laugh or stare. The girls on our trip will often get marriage proposals or offered a ride on their moto (very enticing I know). Every once and a while there will be someone who tries to touch one of the girls or follows them around for a while. I truly feel bad for the girls here because it takes so much more courage to go out in public and get cat called and objectified on a daily basis. We go everywhere in groups and do a good job of walking home together once it gets dark out. Fortunately everyone lives near enough to each other that you don’t ever have to walk home alone. We never stay out late either. Our families like us home by 9 p.m. at the latest because there are lots of thieves that operate in the later hours of the night. So far we have gone out to a couple bars and had some fun but in the early hours of the evening so we get home before 9. Starting next week, we will be able to stay at the Dickinson Center when we want to go out and stay out late. It is much safer because we will be in a big group going to and from clubs/bars and there is no threat.

 

Social life–             Social life is a BIG part of the culture here. High unemployment and cheap beer (700 francs = $1.20 for 0.65 L) keeps many bars full of people enjoying a cold one to escape the daily 90-degree heat. Similar to everywhere that isn’t the US, binging is not the style of the Cameroonian beer drinker. Students that have host fathers have said that it is part of their fathers’ routine to go get a beer after work every day and come home to a prepared dinner. Most of the bars are male dominated as a result.

 

Families–             Our host families come in all shapes and sizes. All part of the upper middle class, the sizes of houses to the number of people living in them varies greatly. I live in a calmer house with a 21 year-old brother (Jude) and 14 year-old sister (Cynthia). My mother, Mama Jacky (seriously what she goes by, its hilarious), is a department in some sort government ministry. A lot of our host parents work in some kind of government position, as does a lot of the upper class in Yaoundé. Although our neighborhood (Montée Jouvance) is nothing special, much of the 1% live in gated communities in specific parts of the city. Say what you will about wealth disparity in the United States, but I think we often take for granted the existence of our middle class to bridge the gap. Whereas here you find a large part of the population living on $1,100 US dollars a year and a super small percent living with servants and driving Range Rovers.

Daily routines consist of an early wake up (7-7:30) to get to class, class during the day then come back to my house in the evening. Usually they are preparing dinner, so I sit in the kitchen and read while they prepare the meal. Meals at my house include beans, rice, fish, chicken, vegetable stew, plantains, and/or fruit. Interestingly we don’t always eat together. People just kind of eat when they are hungry and at the house. On weekends we have had more sit down meals together, but during the week there is little effort made to coordinate and eat together. The same goes in other host families’ apparently big family meals are not a daily practice.

After dinner we will watch some kind of television, whether it’s the news or a Brazilian soap opera that they love, Mama Jacky decides what gets put on. Because we don’t have a father figure in the house and Mama Jacky is the breadwinner, my brother and sister treat her with enormous respect. Once she gets home from work, she does not lift a finger: her dinner is cooked and served to her on a platter then is cleared and the dishes are washed when she is finished. Apparently fathers in other host families are treated with the same respect by their children and go even further: kids wake up 5 am to clean the house, their father’s car, do dishes, prepare breakfast, etc. The respect that children here have for their parents is extremely impressive, however establishes a very hierarchical tone in the house. It is true that many American households do not have nearly respect for their parents, however they are also not afraid to challenge them. American parents are often challenged and not considered absolutists in the eyes of their children. I think I prefer this horizontal and more balanced relationship, however the level of respect established here is truly commendable.

 

Cold showers, power outages and limited wifi– I apologize for any delays that occur when it comes to responding to emails, facebook messages or texts. Although there is wifi at the Dickinson Center it is VERY slow and when a lot of people are using it, it is virtually unusable. There is also no wifi at our host families. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing, which has been really refreshing and great because there is SO much that happens every day that I want to remember.

Power outages are also not uncommon here. Apparently there is not enough electricity to power the entire city, so it is set up on a grid and once or twice a week your neighborhood will have a “coupure” (outage) for 2-3 hours, usually when its most inconvenient. The first time it happened after I moved in with my family, they were cooking dinner and the power cut out. As if nothing had happened, Cynthia went into the cupboard and took out an oil lamp, which she lit and went on with cooking. All the stoves here are gas powered which allows them to keep cooking during a “coupure.” You most definitely get used to using a flashlight to read and brush your teeth.

Hot water is few and far between here. Although I haven’t taken a hot shower since arriving, I really don’t mind. The stifling heat of the day (and even the night), keeps me looking forward to a freezing rinse at the end of the day. I think I take longer showers here than at home just because I miss feeling cold and I know that as soon as I get out, I will start sweating again.

I think it’s interesting to note that even the upper middle class families we live with do not spend money on water heaters or wifi or air conditioning, even though I’m sure they could afford it. I don’t think it’s a matter of being able to afford it, but instead they have never had it as part of their lifestyle and have become accustomed to living without it. They simply don’t have the same priorities that Americans have when it comes to things like technology, social media and luxury. Despite the sweat and the intermittent urge to send an email, the change of pace is really refreshing.

 

I hope that this first post gives you a little bit of insight into the last month of my life. Unfortunately I couldn’t cover everything, but I tried to hit on the most important parts for this post. Next time I’ll go into more detail about the markets, bargaining prices, and our excursions. So far we’ve been to Kribbi (which is a beautiful beach town on the coast) where we spent the weekend with our heads in the sand. Next week we are heading to Limbe, which is a city in the southwest region of the country. Until next time! –Sam  

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Finishing Strong and Maintaining Relationships

 

As my internship comes to a close, the value of finishing strong is becoming very apparent. Looking around at the group of interns that are working here at PKSOI, it is clear that not everyone working here has the same mentality during the last couple weeks of the summer. Although the atmosphere is pretty relaxed and my project was mostly completed, I still made an effort to work diligently and ask for new projects even if I couldn’t finish them. That final push really made a difference to how my mentor viewed my work ethic and proved to him that I wasn’t done until the second I clocked out on Friday afternoon. Any push I can make to improve my relationship with him will be beneficial in the future when looking for other internships or jobs.

Having a check out interview with your mentor might also be beneficial to your future career path. Internships give you a rare opportunity to foster a relationship with someone in a strictly professional setting. This relationship can be a great asset to you down the road when potential employers ask for references or recommendations. Communicating appreciation and thanks to your mentor can go a long way when looking for references or networking for jobs in the future.

This kind of appreciation should also be communicated to any groups or people who helped in your internship experience. For this reason, I would like to give a shout out to Dickinson College for their awesome grant program, which allowed me to have an incredible experience this summer. Because this internship is unpaid, I would not have been able to afford to stay over the summer and live independently without an income. Thank you Dickinson for your support!

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