I distinctly remember where I was when I rceived the email from ACIC informing me that I had been selected for the role as Public Health Intern with the Nova Scotia Gambia Association (NSGA) in The Gambia. I stood in shock, carefully reading the email over and over again.
I knew in that moment that a whole new path had been set before me. Like most young people my age, I was working in a remedial job that I didn’t love, but helped pay the bills and my student debt. I had spent my first full year out of school – after graduating from my Masters of Science in Global Health and Public Policy, I knew I had to pay my dues, but there are so many qualified, young people out there, it’s hard to get your career started.
Nevertheless, I was one of the “lucky” ones who managed to get an unpaid internship right after completing my Masters. Two weeks after handing-in my dissertation, I moved down from Scotland to South England and started my internship – as it was unpaid, I also had to work full-time nights at local pub– 18 hours a day for three months, after which I was offered to extend the unpaid internship. Needless to say, I was too burnt out to accept the offer – even though that would have been the right decision for my career – it was much easier to take the full-time managerial role at a microbrewery/bar back in Scotland. Not working 18 hours a day and but getting paid far out-weighed any decision to stay in the internship.
There are so few vacancies for young people out there to help get started in their career – especially in public health and international development – which is why last May, when I saw the IYIP internships vacancies I was overwhelmed with hope. Every job position in development is looking for local work experience in a developing country. Yet, there are so few opportunities to get that experience (unless you’re willing to pay through the nose and not get paid in return, an option that is not available to the majority of young graduates).
Now having worked for NSGA for 6.5 months in The Gambian office, I completely understand why most of the job vacancies do require this type of work experience.
Development, activism, and public health sensitisation is an entirely different ball game over here. Funding gets tied up in bureaucracy, yet projects still need to be run and targets still need to be met. Partners want a 3-year M&E Plan at a certain deadline, yet continually call you in for trainings and changes in their M&E databases (yes that’s plural). An occasional independent donor will come and visit and everyone in the office has to stop their work to take them around to schools and show them a “real experience”. Reports need to be written, and challenges need to be overcome with very little resources available.
I’ve learnt so much over the past 6.5 months, I’ve been pushed to tackle challenges and deal with constraints I had never even knew would exist. I’ve tried to sit back and listen and learn and soak-up this whole experience like a sponge.
Thinking back to that moment when I found out I was going to The Gambia, I was right, my whole life has changed. If it hadn’t been for this opportunity, I’d probably still be working in that same job. Or, best case scenario, working another unpaid internship and working nights again pushing myself to work 18 hours a day again, and not remotely getting any of the same work or life experience as I’ve gotten through being an IYIP intern. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
In a week, I will have to say goodbye to my friends and colleagues in The Gambia. But, I’m not going back to a job in a pub, or an unpaid internship. The work experiences I’ve gained at NSGA provided me with the required experience and confidence to be hired for a very competitive position at a large international development organisation. I feel lucky to be hired for the position, but also weirdly confident. I’ve gained so much during my time in The Gambia, that I know I have something to bring to the table in this new job. I’m no longer just lost in the masses of young graduates, and I have this whole experience to thank for it.