GoAbroad Interview

Thomas Hill - Applications Coordinator

Thomas Hill

Thomas graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage in the spring of 2012 with a BS in Kinesiology and a minor in Athletic Training. Originally from Canada, Thomas joined the program as an intern in the fall of 2012 working as a physiotherapist. After completing his internship, he fell in love with Cape Town and the program so much that he now has the privilege of heading the applications team at VAC.

You’re from Canada, and your academic background is in Kinesiology and Athletic Training, what attracted you to your work with VACorps?

I was actually an intern myself in the fall of 2012. I had just graduated a few months earlier and was gearing up towards applying for graduate school within the field of Physical Therapy. I figured some international hands-on experience would really make me stand out, so I began a couple week process of researching internship programs all over the world. By some miracle I stumbled upon VACorps’ website and knew it was the perfect fit for me.

After an incredible experience at my host internship site in Bellville working as a pediatric physiotherapist, I decided the career-option wasn’t a good fit for me in the long run. Not sure of my next steps, and having fallen in love with Cape Town and the program, I was incredibly fortunate to extend my stay in the country and help VAC out in an intern support role throughout their busy period.

From there, my role in the company continued to grow from intern support, to helping with the applications side of things as I worked remotely for about four months at the same time as I was working as a forest firefighter in northern Canada. And, from about September 2013 onwards, I haven’t left South Africa since and am still continuing to grow in my role as the Applications Coordinator!

What exactly does your role as Applications Coordinator entail?

National soccer match at Cape Town Stadium, South Africa

Thomas’ colleague, Andrew, managed to get them box seats at the Cape Town Stadium for a national soccer match. They brought some interns with them for an amazing afternoon of feeling quite posh and important!

My main role as the Applications Coordinator is to act as prospective interns’ first step when applying to the program. At any given time throughout the year I’m in contact with 70 to even 100 prospective interns as they make their way through our application process. I typically like to Skype with every candidate and provide them with as much info as possible into what unique opportunities we’ll be able to offer them here at VAC that are well aligned with their professional goals.

What’s great about this job is that Cape Town is one of those cities that really sells itself. With this, I really just need to open the door, so to speak, in giving these amazing candidates an even easier reason to come and join us. Anyone can come to Cape Town as a tourist, but to gain a professional experience while experiencing the city through the eyes of a local is a far more rewarding and exciting way to travel!

How do you screen your applicants? How do you find the most successful participants?

Our application process does a great job of separating the good from the poor candidates, as it does take a fair amount of effort on part of the prospective intern. The Skype call also helps me immensely in determining whether or not they’re going to be a good fit for both our program, and to a prospective internship site.

Our word of mouth referrals are also a great way of finding successful participants, as our program truly is one of a kind. With this, our alumni act as great ambassadors and do a fantastic job of selling the program to their friends and classmates. 

Otherwise, the law of averages plays its part. Throughout the calendar year I’ll have upwards of 3,000 names come across my desk, and we’ve now been able to refine our application process to such a degree that it weans out the good from the poor candidates on its own, without me exhausting myself trying to find the best candidates from the lot.

You have experience as an intern, what advice would you give to those preparing for an internship in Cape Town through VACorps?

I would say to come into the experience with an open mind and a healthy sense of adventure. Cape Town, and moreover Africa, is going to be VERY different from what you feel is “normal” back home, and for some this transition can be quite challenging.

For those who come in with an open mind, we find they much more easily adapt to the cultural differences, living arrangements, and to their host internship sites. Within just a day in the city, these types of interns immediately fall in love with a place they already want to call home.
And for all those interns who arrive and immediately feel overwhelmed, don’t hit the panic button just yet. Everyone feels that when they arrive, take a couple deep breaths and think back on those reasons that drew you to embark on such an incredible adventure to begin with. Once you arrive at your house, you’ll quickly be swept up by all the others in the program dying to tell you all about Cape Town, their upcoming adventures, new favorite restaurants, and how crazy it is that a draught beer only costs $2!

Internship wise, get as involved as possible! Ask tons of questions, be enthusiastic, come in early/stay late, and you’ll be rewarded with incredible learning and personal growth opportunities that I feel only Cape Town offers. In order to get there though, you must leave any feelings of entitlement and assumptions at the door!

What does a typical orientation for VACorps interns include?

A typical orientation begins at around 10 a.m. when new interns are picked up from their houses and brought into our office (which is within walking distance from where everyone lives) to get a feel for what they can come to expect in the coming weeks and months. Firstly, as staff we get the opportunity to meet all new interns for the first time and introduce ourselves before the formal portion of the orientation begins. 
White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Africa

Thomas does a fair amount of personal travel. This photo was taken on the mighty Zambezi River on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls), where Thomas and his girlfriend spent five weeks on the road covering 6,000 kilometers in over six countries.

Following the boring bits (paperwork) the rest of the orientation is actually quite enjoyable. We cover topics such as life in Cape Town, must see and dos, internship goals, expectations and realities of working in Cape Town, program structure, safety in the city/what to do in the event of an emergency, housing, transportation, meal plan options, program extras (Friday activities, running club, language courses), additional travel opportunities, and then we open the floor to them to ask as many questions as they like before going for lunch.

Do interns have to travel very far to get to their placements? 

It really varies from internship site to site. Some of our interns are able to walk to work, many take public transit (train or mini-bus), and for those who work in area of Cape Town called “the townships”, we offer a private internship shuttle, which picks them up from a central location in the neighborhood they live in (Obz) and straight to work and back again at the end of the day.

What are the living arrangements like for VACorps interns in Cape Town?

Our housing is taken care of by our partner Rent a Room. They offer numerous houses in our program neighbourhood of Observatory. which is this amazing little community of locals, foreign travelers/interns, and a healthy number of University of Cape Town (UCT) students as well. The neighborhood contains everything the intern needs, from small shops, restaurants, grocery stores, to great nightlife, and it is safe. It’s also great for those who take public transit to work with the train being a five minute walk from our furthest house.

The houses themselves are well equipped for students too. Every intern gets their own private room and lock, full kitchenettes, wifi, entertainment areas, maid service, washing facilities on site, fully safe and secure, and one house even has a pool!

What makes VACorps’ internships different from those offered by other providers?

What makes VAC unique compared to others is that we work exclusively in Cape Town as opposed to having satellite offices throughout the world. With this, our entire staff is dedicated to one purpose: providing our interns with an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity in Cape Town. We operate as a very family-run business and we take a lot of pride in assuring our interns are happy while here with us.

With this, we offer full support in the event of personal or internship challenges, we assist with finding safe and affordable accommodation, numerous program extras (Xhosa classes, sports clubs, weekend camping trips, VAC Travel trips to neighboring countries), and lastly, we offer Friday activities which are included in our program fee and are truly unique to VAC.
Bungee Jumping off the Bloukrans Bridge in South Africa

Another perk of the job, being around interns who are itching to push their limits, such as the world’s highest bungy off the Bloukrans Bridge. This was taken on the annual eight-day Garden Route trip.

Everything Friday afternoon we meet our interns at the train station and go on an adventure in and around Cape Town. Whether it be hiking on Table Mountain, wine tasting in Constantia, yoga in the botanical gardens, hiring surf instructors at the world-famous surfers corner in Muizenberg, community outreach projects, and even going to festivals and events within the city center.

As I always tell prospective interns, as much as we focus on the professional side of the opportunity, in assuring they’re placed in sites that are well suited to their professional goals, we also make sure they are able to get most of their time here personally and culturally as well.

What some typical characteristics of VACorps interns?

The typical VAC Legend is one who works hard, plays hard, and has a desire to continue to explore the world. Our interns are enthusiastic, intelligent individuals who are open to new experiences, not afraid to leave their comfort zones, and possess such adventurous spirits that not a day goes by when they’re not out exploring this city to the absolute fullest outside of work hours. If they don’t already possess these traits before they arrive, they certainly will after a few weeks with us.

You enjoy surfing, scuba diving, biking, and running. Tell us more about the organized activities that are available through VACorps for interns while they are in Cape Town.

Surfer in Cape Town, South Africa

This one was taken during one of the VACorps Friday Activities where instructors were hired to teach the interns how to surf. Thomas can quite often be found here as he’s desperately trying to become a surfer by local standards!

We offer a variety of different activities through our Friday Activities and VAC Travel getaways. We do a fair amount of hiking on the mountain, weekend camping trips, rock climbing, shark cage diving, paragliding, safaris, wine tasting, visiting the cheetah and lion sanctuaries, snorkeling with seals, PADI scuba certifications (almost our entire staff are keen divers!), surfing, community outreach projects, and even events, such as the Good Food and Wine show, and moonlight mass bike rides in the city-center. 

What is the best part about working for VACorps?

The best part of working for VAC is that it’s not like working a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. The days actually go by too quickly. We have opportunities to travel and get outdoors at least once per week, we all get along terribly well, and we take a lot of pride in our work. With this, we get to meet some of the most incredible like-minded people from across the world.

I think I really like that no two days are exactly alike. There are always new challenges, exciting opportunities to present, and new adventures to be had with and for these amazing interns.