Finding an internship at a Spanish NGO
Luck and persistence got me my internship with an NGO in Spain. I worked for Cives Mundi, a medium-sized international development NGO which works in various poverty-related areas in different countries around the world and it was great to see how they work first-hand.
I worked at their headquarters in Soria, Castile y León, and they gave me a desk, a computer and a work email address on my first day. I felt like a big shot as soon as I arrived. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I kind of had this idea of everyone sat on the floor discussing politics and poetry, passing around photos of their sponsored children, all while incense smoke gently masked the world maps on the walls… Perhaps my expectation wasn’t that extreme, but before I arrived I definitely had a rather romantic notion of what a NGO’s headquarters would be like. To be honest I kind of hoped at some point they’d say “hey, we need an English speaker to go Rwanda for a couple weeks, what do you say?” That didn’t happen, and the office wasn’t quite as I expected – it was really … like an office. It could have been the office of any company.
I learned something really valuable, that 80% of international development is really similar to any other office job and mostly consists of emails, paperwork and invoices. There is definite creativity involved and my colleagues were designing exciting projects which were on the cutting-edge of scientific and development research, but they were doing this in between filing invoices or writing applications for money. This was an important lesson for me in considering what I want to do in the future.
When I first arrived they didn’t know what to do with me, and so after a brief classroom-style introduction into how international development works, they set me to work... filing invoices. This was hardly exciting but I sat down and did it, and soon things picked up as my Spanish got better and people got to know me.
Around November I found myself pretty much a full-time translator, with colleagues from different departments asking me to do all sorts of tasks. I was asked to review documents in English that colleagues had written, advise them on English phrasing, summarise large English EU papers in Spanish and translate many different documents – from emails to contracts to websites. At one point I was asked to ring the EU delegation in Lebanon and translate for my colleague, this turned out to be a pointless task as I ended up speaking to Juan who spoke to me in Spanish – I passed the phone over at this point.
Towards the end, my boss asked me to read a small English book on setting up an entrepreneurship school and had me give a presentation (in Spanish) summarising it and applying it to the local context to a few colleagues. This last task was quite nerve-wracking and stressful, but I put a lot of effort into it and it went really well.
I even had the chance to help write grant applications; I contributed to applications to USAID, the EU, Nestlé and Siemens and I recently received an email from a friend at Cives Mundi telling me that an application I helped her with (she said I gave it “my small grain of sand” – I’m assuming this is a Spanish idiom) has passed the first application stage with the EU development organisation, which was very exciting.
Overall, working with Cives Mundi was exciting and boring, varied and monotonous, easy and challenging; it really gave me a great grounding in the working world in general, and this specific area. I developed important work skills, including time management, but more than anything the big change was my Spanish language skills – I improved immeasurably.
How I got the job
I googled “NGOs in Spain” (in Spanish, obviously) and sent a covering letter and CV to about 15 of them. If they had an intern scheme, as a few did, I applied for it, but if not I just explained in the email that I wanted to work for them (for free) for a year. Writing the covering letter and CV in Spanish was quite daunting, but I did manage to get my personal tutor to check it for me. I got mostly rejections, but eventually I had a positive reply from Cives Mundi and the rest is history.
I encourage anyone thinking of doing something different with their year abroad to make it happen. Generally universities don’t mind what you do, so long as you can demonstrate that you’re going to be speaking the language all day. Whatever it is that you want to do; whether it’s something useful for your career or just something you’re passionate about, send off some emails as soon as possible and see what happens.
You might not be very confident about your language ability, and you don’t want to send off applications in anything other than perfect language, so pester one of your tutors to help you. This might be difficult, personally I struggled to pin down someone to help me, but it is their job to help with this sort of thing so persevere – it will be worth it to have a perfect CV in your target language.
Beware any differences in conventions in CVs between cultures – it may not be enough to simply translate your English CV. Your tutor should know about this, but to be safe research the relevant formats in the country you’re going to.
Ultimately remember that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.