GoAbroad Interview

Rebecca Claris - Director of Experiential Education

Rebecca Claris - Director of Experiential Education

Rebecca spent a good portion of her undergraduate studies abroad, participating in all different kinds of experiential education programs. The transformative experiences she had abroad led her to work in the field of international education. In her role with FIE, she enjoys encouraging students to learn outside of the classroom and build bridges across borders and cultural barriers.

What inspired you to pursue a career in international education?

My parents instilled in me a love a travel from an early age. One summer we visited 15 countries in 90 days!

As a college student, I designed my academics around international education opportunities. In the end, I managed to fit in a semester of field studies in Panama, a semester at a university in Spain, an internship in Costa Rica, a volunteer teaching experience in Ecuador, and a research project in Belize and Costa Rica. At the end of an amazing four years, I realized that helping other students have such transformative experiences was something I could actually do as a career, and I’ve been in international education ever since.

Attendees at the Foundation for International Educations Annual Site Supervisor Appreciation event in London, England
Rebecca at our annual Site Supervisor Appreciation event for the organizations and companies in London that host our student interns.

Why do you think experience as an international intern is important in the world today?

These days it’s not just the multinational corporations who need employees with high cultural competence and the ability to successfully interact and engage with others from around the globe - even a small online shop may have international clients or suppliers! A proven ability to engage across cultures, borders - even differing political viewpoints - is a skill which is valuable for all industries and careers.

Students who’ve had internships are more likely to get a job offer after college, and just a small percent of U.S. students do an internship abroad, so it really adds something unique to your resume. However, surveys show that in order to really benefit, recent graduates need to be able to articulate the skills they gained during the experience and how that makes them a better candidate.

At FIE, all interns take a seminar alongside their placement where they identify the soft and hard skills they are developing, articulate them on an updated resume and professional networking profile, and practice how to effectively market themselves in the interview setting.

Intern working at a computer with a dog on his lap
Open concept offices and hot desking is very common in the London workplace!

Earlier in your career you interned abroad in Latin America. How did your time as an intern impact your life?

Like most internships, my work as a tour guide at a butterfly garden in Costa Rica was filled with amazing highs and perplexing lows. The internship was so far from what I expected it to be, and only lasted two months, and yet it pushed me to new levels of independence and confidence.

Interning in a different country also helped me understand my own culture. Growing up in America, I thought I understood what it meant to be an American, but I think you can only really understand something as complex as culture when you have a contrasting example to compare it to. As I became more self-aware and adjusted to the culture, I was shocked to see some of the culturally insensitive ways some Americans behave when they are abroad. The experience made me much more aware of myself and how I act, but also how our individual actions can influence the way our country is viewed on the world stage.

What makes London a great place for international interns?

Firstly, it’s London! It’s just one of the best cities in the whole world. Since the Olympics, I’ve really felt like London is having its moment; London is the place to be right now - everyone wants to be in London! Of course, one of the most interesting features of London is that it has been a top global city multiple times across the centuries, and you can see that history etched into every street.

On top of that, London is currently experiencing a startup renaissance, especially in the tech and beauty industries. So, many young professionals are founding new and exciting companies which will change the way we eat, travel, and experience life. These startups offer interns incredible opportunities to learn about how business works from the ground up.

On the other hand, London is also a center for global charities and social enterprise. The British culture is known for high levels of volunteering and giving to charity and many international charities are based in London. Given all that, it can be surprising to learn that about a quarter of London’s population live in poverty, once housing costs are considered, and hundreds of local charities have stepped in to support the city’s residents. Students who are interested in making a difference - locally or globally - will find incredible opportunities in London.

Interns at work in London, England
FIE London interns working at their internship placement

You grew up in Seattle and have traveled and worked in many countries around the world. What attracted you to work for FIE?

When I first moved to London, FIE was at the top of my list of places I wanted to work. I really identified with the organisation’s mission of developing creative learning environments and helping students understand the privileges and responsibilities of international citizenship. I also 100 percent believe that: 

interaction between people of diverse cultures is the base upon which empathy among nations is built.”

In a time of deep divisions, I am proud to be part of an organisation which brings different people together and shows us all that the best solutions are reached when we work together and try to understand each other's perspectives. Moreover, during my four years at FIE, I’ve come to see that the organisation doesn’t just state it’s values, but works hard to embed them in everything we do, from the ground up. FIE really cares, not just about students, but about making the world a better place, one small step at a time. It’s an honor to work with such a great team!

How do you use your own experiences interning and working abroad to further the mission of FIE?

I’ve walked in their shoes, so I understand what study abroad students and international interns are facing when they choose to accept the challenge of living, studying, and working abroad. So few people around the world get this opportunity. When I was studying, interning, and volunteering in places like Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama, I met people who could only consider travelling to places where their feet could carry them. Some of my friends in America don’t have a passport and don’t see a need for one. I hope our students understand the incredible privilege they have and that they will carry forward this humbling experience.

Foundation for International Education Experiential Education team hard at work
Our Experiential Education team works hard to find each student an internship that matches their interest areas.

In your mind, what is “experiential education” and how does it apply to FIE students?

FIE believes that some of the best learning takes place outside the classroom. That’s why each and every FIE class uses London as a resource and gets students out and about, learning directly from the city and its people.

Some of our courses also have an associated study tour to get students out of London and interacting with locals from around England and the UK. I organise the study tour to Stratford-upon-Avon, the country town where Shakespeare was born, courted his wife, and raised his own family. Students enrolled in our Shakespeare and Elizabethan Literature or Contemporary British Theatre courses are invited to join the tour and experience some of the best theatre and culture that the UK has to offer. Students enrolled in our popular Islam and the West course can explore religion and multiculturalism in the midland city of Leicester, and in the Food, Society and Culture class students travel to a vineyard and a brewery in Kent in the southeast to explore how food and drink practices shape culture and community.

Study tours are one example of how FIE students can capitalise on the unique advantages of studying abroad to learn through new experiences - and have a lot of fun, too!!

What is the most important piece of advice you have for future interns with FIE?

The most successful interns are those who have a flexible attitude and an open mind; they try not to judge and are ready to dive head-first into any opportunity that comes their way.

We build long-term relationships with our amazing placements and site supervisors, and they have hosted thousands of student interns over the years. Presented with the exact same opportunity in the exact same placement, some of those students will have incredible, life-changing experiences, and some will be disappointed and not progress. As it’s the same supervisor and the same the placement, the only difference is the student! It can be empowering for students to realise they are in control of the experience because they are in control of their attitude and approach.

Interns looking at a computer together
FIE students can also be in very small teams at their internship, with just one or two other professionals.

What is the most rewarding part of working with FIE for you?

Even though our students are only in their internships for six to eight weeks, it never ceases to amaze me how much they can grow and learn in such a short time. Students tell us they thought they were coming to London to hone their professional and cultural skills, but what they are actually taking away is greater confidence and self-awareness. The hardest subject to study is yourself, because no professor can teach you the subject, you have to figure it out! That is the hidden best thing about study abroad: learning about you, and where you want to take yourself next!