As part of our Student Insight blog series, Madeleine Race, MSc Violence, Conflict and Development (2016-7), talks about her move from London to Dakar, Senegal for an internship with community development NGO, Tostan.
After two years working in the UK charity sector, and an eye-opening three months volunteering in sustainable business development in Uganda, my desire to pursue a more international-facing career with a socially-oriented goal drove me to apply for a development studies Masters. Suffice to say, an intense year studying ‘Violence, Conflict and Development’ at SOAS both satisfied and encouraged my curiosity to know more about the world which turns around us.
Of course, after a year of poring over dusty textbooks (read: napping in the Senate House library) and countless conversations putting the world to rights over a Blue Moon in the JCR, mine and my classmates’ discussions started to turn towards the world of work. Having spent the year tearing apart the complexes and corruptions of the ‘Development system’, how on earth were we going to come to terms with finding a job in it?
It was during one of these conversations that a good friend suggested Tostan, a human rights-focussed NGO which has been working to empower African communities to fulfil their own visions for sustainable and relevant development since the 1990s. Tostan – which means ‘breakthrough’ in Wolof, the primary language of Senegal – works alongside rural communities to equip them with basic knowledge of their human rights and responsibilities, and the leadership skills needed to make positive change. The organisation is especially well-known for sparking incredible social change across the West African region through the movement to abandon harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Cutting and child marriage.
How lucky I felt to see a job post on their website at the end of the exam period: I applied straight away! I am now halfway through a six-month internship in the Grants Department in Dakar, and learning every day about the realities (good and bad) of work in an NGO headquarters and life as an ‘expat’ in Senegal. Settling in to life here has been at once challenging, invigorating and astonishing. Although there is plenty to critique about the Development sector’s reliance on underpaid graduate labour, the reality is that internships can be excellent gateways and I am looking forward with optimism to seeing where this one takes me. My key advice to anyone considering the internship route, however, is to first reflect and be realistic: Can you afford to do it? City life is expensive the world over. Will it challenge you enough? If you already have some work experience, then you could apply for posts with more responsibility. Will it lead to further opportunities? Smaller organisations can often be more flexible at the end of your contract than larger structures like the UN.
It is important to note that I wouldn’t have discovered this opportunity if it hadn’t been for that one recommendation from a friend, or the support of the SOAS Careers Service. One of the best things SOAS has left me with is a worldwide network of incredibly dedicated and dynamic peers – so my top tip would be to listen to them, take their advice, share your own, and you never know what a small conversation might lead to. The Careers Service helped me to do a practice interview and even specifically sought out a Francophone team member to run through questions in French. This practice interview gave me the small but vital confidence boost I needed to do well in the real thing. Having been out of the professional mind-set for a year, the Careers Service’s tips helped set me on track to think and behave professionally and confidently in the interview. Go and see them today – it’s the perfect excuse to get out of that library!
Please note that the views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not those of SOAS Careers Service. If you consider this content to be in breach of the SOAS values, please alert firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please also note that SOAS Careers is committed to only advertising paid internships positions, in line with National Minimum Wage regulations. Further information and positions are available here.