One Intern’s Reflection

Our writing and reporting intern, Karen Shen (pictured, center), has been hard at work here at Niagara these past few months. Last week she sent me an essay she wrote in order to get school credit for her internship. I asked her to share a condensed version here because I thought it was such a great overview of our internship program. Thank you Karen! If you are interested in an internship with Niagara, click here for more information. It has been a pleasure working with you, Aundrea, Ying, Yu, Alexis (pictured on the left), Diri (pictured on the right), and Cassie this fall. – Eleanor Peck, Director of Communications and Member Relations

Essay By: Karen Shen

It was six months ago that I first interviewed for and got this internship at the Niagara Foundation. At the time, I had never had any in-office experience and had no idea what was in store for me. All I knew about internships and working in an office was what I saw in Devil Wears Prada, a few other movies/TV shows, and what older friends had recounted. I didn’t expect to actually make an impact at this company and I certainly never expected to have my opinions and ideas be heard by directors and vice presidents.

What did I learn? I learned everything that people could possibly learn in the first few weeks at their first job and probably even more. My experience as a writing/reporting intern gave me a lot in terms of what I will carry into my future internships and jobs. I learned to work on assignments according to the organization’s needs, to cater to a specific audience in my writing, to balance and prioritize certain assignments over others, to manage office relationships, to ask questions about aspects that confused me, and to actively listen (something that most people never really learn).

Even before I started there I already sensed that everyone was friendly on more than just professional terms. Aleksa stressed to me, six months ago when I first interviewed, that she wanted the internship to be somewhere I can learn and grow rather than just fetch and watch. I saw that in practice throughout the internship when I was encouraged to ask questions, offer up my own ideas, and seek out non-supervisors for help. And with Aleksa, Eleanor, and Brendan all being interns turned employees, I really knew that they understood what I was experiencing.

I’m glad that I ended up at Niagara, because unlike some other internships, there was always an open line of communication between me and my supervisors. Honestly, the term “supervisor” sounds so stiff and official, because Eleanor and Aleksa didn’t come off as though they were in control of me. They made me feel like they were my mentors and wanted me to be able to take charge of my own projects and learn from them. Niagara created this space for me to think for myself, but with the guidance and assistance of the entire office.

Working at Niagara gave me a lot of insight into the behind the scenes of the non-profit world. I have done a lot of volunteer work in my life, from going to New Orleans for Katrina relief to teaching music to kids in Guatemala to building schools for kids in Costa Rica, but I have never seen the true inner workings of a non-profit company. The work that they do to bring people together for a cause is so much more extensive than I ever knew and the people that work in non-profits are the hardest workers I have ever seen. They don’t do it for the money, they do it for the cause that they believe in and that’s not something you get to experience elsewhere. Niagara’s goals are kind of everyone’s goals. I saw that when people sat in on Friends in Faith talks and listened during forums, not because it was their job, but because they were truly interested in what people had to say.

What is so special about Niagara is that we contribute to so many different parts of the community. We bring political leaders, CEOs, and devout churchgoers together to initiate and sustain an engaged dialogue. In that way, Niagara enhances each individual’s understanding of other members of the community through civic dialogue and deep discussion.

That’s why working at Niagara, unlike working at other non-profit organizations, has given me so many different connections in the entire community. We have had so many people come into the office to speak at the forums like Dawn Dalton of the Battered Women’s Network, Judge Bob Anderson of DuPage county, the deans of Northwestern and Loyola’s law schools, Dr. David Faris from Roosevelt, Laith Saud and Dr. Zaher Sahloul. These people are not only local experts in their fields, but also have connections to so many different people around the world. I got the chance to listen to them speak about the issues they’re passionate about and even got the chance to interview some of them. When I am associated with the Niagara Foundation, I am associated with the goal of cross-cultural dialogue and interfaith communication and therefore am associated with these distinguished community members that come to our office.

It’s not just about the references and contacts, but it’s about being a part of the organization and being understood as an individual who shares the same goals that the organization does. The people at Niagara who work with me and can provide me with references or connections in the future are incredible, but they also work each and every day to bring people to the office to help expand my network even more. When I go into the world to look for a job and I can say that I have met the Consul General of Israel or that I had a conversation with the president of the Syrian American Medical Association. That networking potential is so much more than I could get at other internships. The people that Niagara connects together are the people that I can connect together, too, and I am so grateful at the opportunity to do so.

This internship has given me so much more than I thought I could get. Over the ten weeks I have been at Niagara, I can say that there hasn’t been a bad moment at all. I’ve always felt supported and acknowledged. At Niagara, I’ve always known that my contribution really will impact the company and help take it in a better direction.  The work is never too easy, which I love, but I haven’t really felt like it wasn’t doable, despite the challenges that it has put me up against. It’s a great contrast to have and I’m glad that I found that here.

I’ve also felt more knowledgeable about local and global issues. With the forums and other programming that occurs at Niagara, I’ve never felt more connected with what’s happening in the outside world. I’ve always watched the news and skimmed through the paper or through headlines online, but to get to understand these issues on such a deep and unique level is not something you can get everywhere. I have a better understanding about the past three years in Egypt, the true situation of domestic violence in the Chicagoland area, the repercussions of the legal education crisis in the United States, and the real medical situation in the Syrian crisis. I wouldn’t have known that if Niagara hadn’t given me the opportunity to listen and comprehend (and summarize for our readers) the conversations that are occurring around these different issues. And when I turn around and write down what I have learned for another Niagara member to read, then I have just given one more person a piece of that knowledge. That is the goal of Niagara, to encourage and promote dialogue about different cultures and relevant issues and to give as many people the chance to be a part of it. And I have.

So what is next for me as I move forward in my college career and towards my future career? I think to make sure that I find experiences like this one; where I can learn and grow in a healthy and nurturing environment. I think that what I have gained educationally and through the practical experience I’ve gotten here will give me a lot of skills to bring into the real world. I know that the wonderful experiences of a welcoming office environment and supportive mentor network I have had here are probably not going to be anywhere near what I might get out there, but that’s always something to take into consideration as well. The small office closeness and passionate people that I have encountered here are something that I know I enjoy, so that will be the things I will look for in my job search. I think that there’s always more room for personal growth, as I have certainly seen in myself at Niagara, so that is also something I want to be able to do in my future career. I think that when I approach the job search, I’m going to compare it to all the positive experiences I have had at this internship and see where that takes me. If I end up at a non-profit organization, then I guess that’s where I belong.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.