International internships on the rise

June 11, 2010

In Timisoara, the second largest city in Romania, Ford School master's of public policy candidate Eric Burnstein is interning with the chief City Hall architect at the Atelier de Urbanism. The city is a cultural treasure—with dozens of museums and galleries, landmark architectural buildings, and a rich tradition of music and theater. Burnstein describes it as the most 'cosmopolitan' of Romania's cities, explaining that the historic region, full of stunning, 19th century Hapsburg-style buildings, draws youth culture from across Europe. However, Timisoara also has its challenges.

Many of the historic buildings have fallen into a state of disrepair. "Hip coffee shops are often hidden behind closed-looking Communist storefronts," says Burnstein, a dual-degree master's candidate in public policy and urban and regional planning, "and many parks and other public spaces are not maintained." But these details, while troubling, are only symptoms of the larger problems—poverty, unemployment, and widespread corruption—troubling Timisoara. "While Romania has integrated into the European Union," says Burnstein, "it still has a long way to go to be considered a 'developed' country, especially when it comes to civil society, transparency, and public participation in political life."

Among other projects he'll tackle during his 10-week internship, Burnstein will work with Natalia Carp, senior planning staffer for the City of Timisoara, to prepare a presentation on Detroit as a case study for shrinking cities. This summer, the two will share that presentation with the city's leaders and architects, as well as with students of policy, urbanism, and architecture from local Romanian universities. What's happening in Detroit, explains Burnstein, "is directly relevant to Romania, where every city is losing population to Western Europe as people leave in search of stable working environments."

Eric Burnstein is doing great work—and learning a lot in the process—but he's not alone. All master's of public policy students at the Ford School are required to complete a hands-on policy internship during the summer between their first and second year. These 10-week, full-time internships allow students to learn firsthand about significant problems in the public, private, and non-profit sectors while enhancing their own academic and professional skills in the process.

This summer, roughly seven dozen second-year students will complete internships. About one-third will intern locally, in the state of Michigan, or in other local communities; another third will complete internships at organizations based in Washington, DC; and a good portion—like Eric Burnstein—will travel abroad.

All told, 23 of the Ford School's second-year master's candidates are doing internationally focused work on five continents (Oceania and Antarctica aren't represented).


  • Five students are in China, interning for organizations like the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Joint U.S./China Collaboration on Clean Energy, and Lenovo.
  • Three students are working for the United Nations—two in Bangkok and one in Geneva.
  • Five others are in Africa—two at CIVICUS in South Africa, one with the U.S. State Department in Zimbabwe, one at the Ghana Coalition of Healthcare NGOs, and one at Innovations for Poverty Action in Malawi.
  • Other students are in Bolivia, Cambodia, Canada, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Philippines.

Students don't need to travel abroad, though, to work on international issues. Another 12 Ford School students are doing internationally focused work in the United States—at organizations like Direct Relief International, Mercy Corps, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In DC, for example, Ben Johnson, a dual-degree master's candidate in public policy and natural resources, will be working with Peace Corps and USAID specialists to help jumpstart food security programs in a number of African countries.

In 1997, less than 5 percent of Ford School students interned abroad. Today, about 25 percent of the school's students intern outside of the U.S., and another 20 to 25 percent engage in state-side internships focused on international issues. Perhaps it's globalization, or the internet, or the fact that students today increasingly consider themselves citizens of the world. But whatever it is, Eric Burnstein and our other international interns can testify to the fact that borders aren't as rigid as they once were, and we can all learn a lot from each other.