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Tips for young journalists who want to work in international development

Siena AnstisWebsite

A sunset in Elongatuas, Masai Mara, Kenya (2009). Photo by Siena Anstis.

A sunset in Elongatuas, Masai Mara, Kenya (2009). Photo by Siena Anstis.

[Editor’s Note: Siena Anstis, who has served as our Africa correspondent on the blog over the past few months, is moving on to new projects. She’ll continue to contribute to the blog, but wanted to pass on some of the things she’s learned during her time working and reporting in Uganda, Kenya, and elsewhere for other young Western journalists looking to work abroad.]

I will be packing my bags next week and leaving Nairobi after an 8-month fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation (East Africa) and freelance work under the Journalism & Development Scholarship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Of course, the idea of leaving and juggling with new choices is both exhausting and exhilarating.

On that note, I know I am privileged to have traveled this much over the past few years (with a lot more to come). I regularly think back on how important the guidance and opportunities I received have been (parents are probably the biggest asset in this department). So, if you are interested in entering international development, I figured I would share a few other tips, after the jump:

Develop a specialty: Whether I want to work in journalism or not, having the skills and training of a journalist is a big asset. Getting into international development is no walk in the park – entry level positions often ask for 5 or more years of experience. However, if you have something that makes you versatile – in my case, photography, design and writing – you might make the cut.

Studying International Development:
You do NOT need to study International Development to enter the field. An undergraduate degree (Social Sciences or Humanities) in any discipline is what you make of it and is equally as relevant. Also, grades matter. You will need to do a Master’s at some point to climb the ladder and high grades are key.

Study both applied and research: Instead, combine your undergraduate. For example, do a major in a research degree and another major in an applied degree. You might not have time to do an Honors in the research section, but you will have a lot more skills when you graduate. Plus, no Honors will not stop you from getting into Canadian or UK graduate schools (I can guarantee you this). Applied degrees can be anything from journalism to graphic design and marketing. All applied skills are valuable when you start an internship or a new job in international development. The applied degree will always add that extra edge to your applications – and be your emergency money-maker down the line.

Apply your “applied skills” now: I started freelancing the moment I entered journalism school. A lot of it was unpaid work with minimal exposure, but it taught me the difficult ropes of freelancing. I also wrote regularly for the school newspaper and did a stint as a news editor. I continue to do a mix of free and paid work, using all of it as an opportunity to market myself online. This also applies to other degree. For example, if you are a graphic design and political science major (maybe a strange – but interesting – mix), try volunteering/working for some local NGOs.

Start early. Get “involved” now:
Being involved can mean anything from attending lectures and seminars you would not usually bother with to helping at the soup kitchen and assisting with the Amnesty Chapter at your university. I would suggest a mix of the obscure and the obvious. Having UN-related organizations on your CV is fantastic, but remember that you will probably get more experience working with that small local organization that really needs extra hands. Getting involved takes some determination: many organizations are too disorganized or busy to streamline volunteers. Harass them persistently.

Travel with purpose: Wherever you travel, analyze the conditions around you. From racism in Denmark to tourism in Zanzibar, there is a story in every surrounding. Recognize these stories, write a blog, use social media to disseminate your stories (namely Twitter). Show that you are engaged in your environment. If anything, this will help you discover more about yourself and the world around you.

Internships: There is a point where you get to say “no more work for free.” However, the time between now and then is getting longer and longer, particularly with the job market in disarray. Some people spend several years after university working for next to nothing or free and getting their foot in the door. So, beat them to it. Do internships abroad every summer. Use some of your student loans and savings. Don’t wait until you’ve graduated. For example, I spent the the second and third summers of university working in Uganda. I then did an exchange for 6 months to Europe and threw in some freelancing in Kosovo. I started a non-profit (and basically surrendered myself to no-income for a year). And now I’m finishing a costs-covered (but no profit) 8-month fellowship. Yes, I had to take out some extra bank loans, but it’s worth it.

Look outside the box: Instead of applying for those mainstream and hard to get internships that everyone applies to, contact an organization you would like to work for directly. Say you are moving to where they are based and want to volunteer for free for several months. Getting an internship is not hard, making the most of it is. And sometimes these internships change you whole perspective. For example, I started working for Women of Uganda Network because a friend heard the organization occasionally took foreign interns and referred me. WOUGNET introduced me to a whole other area in development, information and communication for development (ICT4D) in broad terms, which is now my thesis focus and has helped me get accepted to top schools in the UK.

Prepare for your internship: Like I said, making the most of an internship is hard. Many are office-based and involve little field-work. You’ll find yourself editing documents and writing tired Facebook messages. Unless, of course, you bring some ideas of your own. Spend the first few weeks recognizing gaps in the organization and, once people are comfortable with you, suggest a particular project you would like to work on or pitch your own idea. When I was working with the Women of Uganda Network, in Kampala, Uganda, the first few weeks were slow – until I stumbled across their citizen journalism initiative and asked to design and facilitate a workshop for local non-governmental organizations.

Award/Internships:
There are a few good organization and awards you should be applying to while in university or after graduation. This applies primarily to Canadians and is based on some of my previous work experience. There are dozens more – if you know them, post in the comments section!

The Aga Khan Foundation Fellowship (8 months, costs covered): This fellowship has funded my current position. There are position all around the world, from Tajikistan to the white beaches of Zanzibar. Applications are generally due in December. They take university graduates with a preference for Masters students (however, there were plenty non-Masters in my cohort).

Insight Collaborative (1-year, costs covered): This fellowship is for people with a bit more experience (several international internships under their belt – whether summer or longer-term).  Training is primarily in conflict resolution, with the opportunity to organize internship placements anywhere in the world.

Forces Avenir: For students studying in Quebec, this competition is a fantastic way to gain more exposure for yourself or your project.

Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (summer, unpaid): If you are at Concordia University, this is a great way to get your first field experience. It is the most basic introduction to international development you can get while being cared for.

McGill Internship Program (summer, bursaries available): If you are at McGill, you can look into this highly competitive program. A friend of mine used to work in their offices, feel free to contact me for more details.

CIDA Internships (5-6 months, costs covered): These internships are good for people on their first or second work experience abroad. They are getting increasingly competitive, I presume, as the job market stalls.

Women of Kireka (rolling, unpaid): A bit of self-promotion, but the organization I started with Project Diaspora in Kampala, Uganda, is looking for interns. You can read more about the positions here.

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