What You Really Learn in England

It all started with a really bad Google search. Not “bad” as in “inappropriate;” “bad” as in “poorly worded,” one of those Google searches where you write out a whole phrase or question because you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for. “Man who donates big percent of his income,” I typed, looking for some guy I’d read about in an ethics course years back who, I recalled, did just that. Little did I know that this silly musing would land me a two-month internship in Oxford, England just a year and a half later.

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The search in the winter of my senior year of high school lead me to Peter Singer, a modern-day moral philosopher who, according to Wikipedia, donates 25% of his salary. He has pledged to do so as a member of the organization Giving What We Can, a nonprofit that encourages people to give a percentage of their lifetime incomes to cost-effective, poverty-related charities. They’re based, as you might’ve guessed, at the University of Oxford. So after a year and a half of remote volunteering, networking, and local advocacy, I applied for and received an invitation to intern at their headquarters in tea-sipping, queen-loving England, to work with the organization I’d promoted for so long from afar.

I couldn’t think of a more ideal opportunity. I’m an economics and business student, pursuing money-oriented degrees that in my case stray as far from a desire for personal wealth as it gets. Technical skills such as those taught in economics and business classes are necessary not just for stock traders and financial consultants, but also, perhaps more crucially, for nonprofit managers and development researchers, too. The “wishy-washy” world of charity is actually one of the most complex and poorly understood areas of economics, and charities and governments operating under assumptions of immediate need donation models are unlikely to make much progress. Although my coursework provides the skills I need to succeed in this field, the economics and business departments are unable to cater well to this interest, so I looked elsewhere to build up my quantitative-qualitative skillset. Giving What We Can’s heart-and-the-head approach fit the bill exactly.

But there was a problem. Nonprofits – particularly smallish ones like this one – don’t have oodles of money floating around, and what money they do have is better spent on their direct work or overhead than paying hand-over-first for some American undergrad to cross the pond and do free work for them. Flying to England and back, obtaining a Tier 5 Charity Worker Visa, and paying for food and rent costs a pretty pound, one per 1.70 US dollars, to be exact. With the help of the Engaged Learning Award from CELT, as well as the Dean’s Grant through Newcomb Tulane, money from an essay contest I won in the fall, and a scholarship I had received the previous spring, I pooled enough money to make the trip feasible.

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The experience was a learning experience of a different breed, learning by doing rather than by regurgitating information, as is common of classroom settings. I worked amongst top academics whose knowledge, ability, and experience far surpassed my own, in an environment where people work long, productive hours at their own will and implementation. As an outreach intern, one of my main tasks was to turn their research on various intervention areas – microfinance, climate change, and water and sanitation – into 45-minute presentations for use in their various international chapters. I learned a lot simply by reading and fleshing out the information on each topic, and became comfortable presenting to and taking comments from people more informed than myself. I also was (and continue to be) in charge of their social media pages, finding relevant content online to share with their followers and engaging those who express interest. It was a good way to familiarize myself with the latest in development news and to convey poverty information in catchy ways.

Yet much of what I gained came from the atmosphere and work conditions, unexpected takeaways that make me incalculably more prepared to make substantive change. With few full-time employees there was a lot of flexibility to do the type and amount of work I wanted, a blessing or a curse depending on how the flexibility is used. It would’ve been easy to cut days short, to get distracted and do other things, or to deviate from the public image they’re trying to promote. Flexibility in college is one thing, as your action (or inaction) directly reflects on yourself through your grades and impacts your future career options. But my actions here reflected not just on me but on the organization, and impacted their prospects and ultimately those of the people they are trying to help. It was therefore more necessary to perform well, yet arguably easier not to do so.

This is where the learning came in. I felt out the line between taking initiative and taking inappropriate liberties. I became my personal taskmaster, admitting to myself when I was slacking or trying to take on too much. I sought out my niche skills and played on those, realizing that I was more useful doing what I do best than aspiring to simply follow in the footsteps of others.

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Outside the internship directly I attended a couple of related conferences and networking socials where I learned to adapt my conversational approach and the thoughts I expressed to the person at hand. I also travelled throughout England and bits of Europe where I acquired a slew of “adult” skills: coordinating travel plans, sending difficult emails, monitoring tight budgets, you name it. And I discovered things about myself as a promoter of their work, that, for instance, I would prefer to work directly on helping others than to earn lots of money in the for-profit sector and donate it where it does the most, or that soft skills that I considered rather generic can actually be significant value adds in quant-heavy communities. I learned, too, to enjoy tea-sipping, queen-loving England, that is, to adapt to the words and mannerisms of a surprisingly different culture.

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Engaged learning to me means more than memorizing textbooks. It means purposefully entering a new and different environment and adapting to the changes. It means feeling out intuitive understandings and acting on what you learn. It even means doing bad Google searches when you think of things you’d like to know but can’t put into words. If I’d gone into this internship simply looking to cultivate my outreach skills I frankly would have been disappointed, as I could’ve done, and do, a fair bit of that at home. But I fought for the difficult, expensive ride instead, and found that embracing the difficult and the expensive changes are what have made me better prepared to convert from being a change-espouser to a true changemaker.