Doing an internship while studying is a great way to open up doors to that dream job and ease the daunting transition from classroom to workplace
ELEANOR AINGE ROY
Tiep Saha learned to relax during his internship at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Internships have long been a popular pathway to a career for self-starting university students in Cambodia.
Not only are they an effective way to gain experience, make contacts in the industry, and decide whether a chosen profession the right one, they can also improve employment opportunities on graduation.
In the tough job market of today, that can be crucial, Sandra D'Amico, the managing director of HR services firm HRINC said.
"There is a lot to learn from just looking, listening and understanding, and I don't think graduates are provided enough with these intuitive skills at university... and learning to ask critical questions," she said in an email.
"The transition from school to work is not always an easy one for everyone so I think that gaining experience and knowing how to be professional is important, and the more you do it, the more skilled you will become at managing yourself and your time."
Tiep Saha, 24, a fourth-year media and ccommunications student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), has so far served three internships; two months at the Centre for Social Development, three months at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) and eight months at Plan International Cambodia.
He was the first Cambodian national to intern at the ECCC, joining the public affairs department from July to October 2008. His duties included media monitoring, preparing communication materials for visitors, going into the field to distribute materials and write reports, and assisting in tours of the ECCC.
"I was very nervous when I first began because I am just a student, and there are so many high-ranking people around me, so it was a great honour," he said.
There is a lot to learn from just looking, listening and understanding.
"But after a while I relaxed because people were very friendly - especially in the public affairs department. We would often have lunch together and ride in the same car when we went on field trips, and this was a good chance to gain knowledge and also build relationships with each other."
Support is key
Tiep Saha wrote his final-year thesis on the Khmer Rouge tribunal, supervised by Helen Jarvis, who until recently served as head of public affairs. He said that both Jarvis and tribunal spokesman Reach Sambath took his internship very seriously.
"They said to me all the time ‘reading is knowledge and knowledge is power', and they always asked me what do I want from my time there and what should they provide me with," Tiep Saha said. "Reach Sambath would take me on tours of the ECCC to observe his work and give me many materials on the ECCC. They were also very understanding when I made mistakes."
Ricarda Rieger, deputy country director of the United Nations Development Programme, is a strong supporter of internships. Each unit of the UNDP is required to take on at least one intern per year, she said, and the placements were highly competitive.
Although managing interns is an added responsibility for staff, the UNDP feels an obligation as an international agency supported by government funding - including from Cambodia's government - to contribute to the training and development of young people in Cambodia, Rieger said.
"I think internships are very valuable because it allows students to find out if development work is something they really want to do - it helps validate their ideas of what the organisation is about, what work means in an international intergovernmental organisation, and how that might differ from other experiences their friends might be having," she said.
Rieger said tasks varied between departments, but most interns did administrative work, such as reviewing budgets, participating in meetings and taking minutes.
"What we are looking for from interns at UNDP is someone who is curious, wants to learn and is extremely eager. A fairly good level of English is also required as we are an international organisation," she said.
"What we don't want is someone who sits in a corner and pushes paper or checks on the Internet. We look for an open mind, and someone willing to contribute."
The organisation takes around 50 interns a year for an average three months each. It currently has five foreign and 10 local interns, including third-year RUPP media and communications student Sok Sokunthea. Serving a six-month internship in the communications department, he said his initial nerves over working with foreigners had subsided. "The first week is hard, but now I have regular work to do it is better and there's not so much pressure. I think I prefer working to studying; I think I learn more than I do at school," he said.
Sandra D'Amico of HRINC agrees. "Any work experience while you are studying is extremely valuable, but it is important to keep yourself structured and occupied in a productive manner," she said.
D'Amico added that many employers in Cambodia were willing to take on interns, but it was important to make your CV stand out from the crowd and be willing to tailor it to individual employers.
"I can say that most graduate CVs look the same - they don't say much about the person,"she said.
"I would encourage graduates to be creative about their CVs and try to show skills, aptitude and abilities rather than copying what your friends do," she said.