Hi! My name is Olivia Ellis, and I am a 2021-2022 Gilman Alumni Ambassador from Charlotte, North Carolina. I graduated cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in International & Global Studies. As a Gilman Scholar, I had the wonderful opportunity to virtually intern abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam in the spring of 2021.
Are you someone who is worried about your health and safety, while studying abroad? Are the concerns of the pandemic making you second guess your studying abroad plans and dreams?
Well, I’m here to tell you that your worries and concerns are valid and understandable. You may feel that you are the only one having these thoughts, but you are not alone. I’m also here to tell you that your study abroad dreams have not been defeated!
Have you ever heard of the quote “when one door closes, another one opens?” Well, that is what a virtual exchange program was like for me. When the pandemic first started, I was quite hopeful that I would be able to continue my initial study abroad program in Seoul, South Korea. I dreaded the day that the email that stated “your study abroad program has been canceled” would come upon my computer screen. That day had come, and I was full of emotions and for a moment I didn’t know what I should do. Although I was very discouraged, I continued to be optimistic and decided to try something new, and I searched for virtual options. With the help of my university study abroad advisor and my Gilman advisor. I was led to multiple remote options to take on, as an exchange program. I decided to apply to ISA Internships and was accepted to intern as a virtual English as a Second Language (EFL) teacher in Hanoi, Vietnam at the Will to Live Center. This new experience or new open door was filled with many engaging and exciting group meetings, late night conversations, cultural learning, and meaningful connections. I met wonderful people, I had my first experience in teaching, and I learned about Vietnamese culture from my friends and faculty. I also became more involved in social issues surrounding disabilities in Vietnam. The Will to Live Center is a non-profit organization that provides technology and English language skills to students, who are living with physical disabilities. My students who always logged onto zoom with smiling faces, positive energy, and enthusiasm for learning, were the reason behind my smile every day. I wanted to make sure that they knew that not only am I teaching English to you, but I am also here to learn from you. Whether it was about Vietnamese culture, learning Vietnamese or talking about the social issues that they face in their community, I reciprocated the same positive energy and enthusiasm to learn from them as well. Having this internship opened so many opportunities for me to learn, to grow, and to explore different interests. Maybe you’re reading this and you’re thinking “wow that’s great that she had a good experience, but that might not be the same for me.” Which is true, but your goals shouldn’t be to make your experiences the same as mine, but to make your experiences, your own.
Top photo: A photo of my students after our first day of class.
Bottom photo: A drawing of me from one of my students.
Here are some aspects about virtual internships that are in my opinion beneficial to how I made the most of my virtual exchange program.
- Saving Money
What I loved about having a virtual internship is that you can save some money. Although, I couldn’t experience the thrill of traveling around my host country. I was able to use my extra savings from my initial program, to enjoy a small, safe, vacation with my friends, to buy books about Korean culture and Vietnamese Culture, and I would visit my favorite Vietnamese restaurant and enjoy warm, flavorful bowls of Pho, which became a weekly ritual for me. I made the most out of my experiences from having extra money. It was very helpful for me to enjoy my senior year of college and my internship, and I also gained new experiences with friends and had my own solo adventures.
A photo from my trip to the Museum of Art, in Raleigh, NC.
- Making Deeper Connections
Another aspect of participating in a virtual internship is that I believe it enabled me to make deeper connections with my fellow-interns, my supervisors from my host company, and members from ABROADER. Before my program officially began, I thought about how could I make connections with the people that I would meet on this virtual journey? However, making friends was surprisingly easier for me during this internship. Maybe it is because we knew we had to interact with each other, since we were all online and did not want to have that “awkward zoom” feeling for 4 months, or maybe it’s because our advisors from ABROADER made our zoom meetings a welcoming and comfortable space for us to be vulnerable. It’s possibly because of both things, but we did feel comfortable to express ourselves to each other. We made a group chat where we would share photos of food, celebrate birthdays and holidays together, talk about our cultures, and share our daily lives. We created a virtual community for ourselves, and it made our time together memorable.
- Finding An Environment That Works for You
From my experience, the work culture in Vietnam is different from the common U.S. work culture that we have grown familiar with. Vietnamese work culture is more collective, there is a more team driven feeling and they work at a calmer pace, rather than the U.S work culture which is more individualistic and fast paced. I learned that it is common to have a connection with your supervisors, so it was very new to me to share my Facebook with my supervisor, or to call her or text, rather than strictly using email. I enjoyed that having access to communicate with each other through these resources helped us understand and share about our lives, which in result led us to support one another in the best way we could through remote communication. Experiencing this type of work culture, helped me understand what type of work environment that I feel I could prosper in. Having this experience has led me to pursue working in Vietnam. I learned about what I liked and what I did not like in accordance to a place that I want to reside in for work, which is a very important aspect to consider.
Beautiful yellow trees during Tét Holiday.
- Focusing On the Present That Is Creating My Future
Through the connections that I made during my internship, I’ve been guided and supported in my journey of becoming an EFL teacher. I’ve realized that it is common to feel lost when you begin a new task. When I finished my internship, I had a determined mind to pursue a TEFL licensure, however there were so many options that I could choose but having so many options made me feel lost and overwhelmed all at once. Thankfully, my ISA Internship advisors were willing to help direct me to a great TEFL licensure program, in which I will finish receiving in the next month. I have also received additional teaching opportunities through my friends from ABROADER. Currently I am teaching remotely for a non-profit library called Duonglieu Library. I’m thankful for this teaching opportunity because it is allowing me to grow as a teacher, and I can do what I love most, which is meeting new people and helping them achieve their goals. All the opportunities that I have had since I began my internship has helped me gain more experience in my career field. I am always grateful for those who have supported me and helped me through my journey, towards my career.
I do believe that my virtual exchange program has led me into my future and at times I do feel that the way my study abroad situation unfolded, was meant to happen for me. Although I did not have an in-person experience, I feel that the feelings, the connections, and the growth that I have had during and after my internship, will always be a memorable and transformative time in my life. I feel even more ecstatic and ready for the day that I can travel and to do what I love most. I know that when that day comes that I will be confident and prepared to take on the new challenges and experiences that I will face, and it is all because of my decision to try something new.
Top photo: A regular class day for my students and I
Middle photo: Beautiful decorations during Tét Holiday
Bottom photo: Last day of class! Everyone attended class from home due to Covid cases rising in Hanoi
So, I encourage you to try something new today, tomorrow, or even next week. If you have been pondering about participating in a virtual program, I believe you should do it. Make a new experience for yourself, learn about the people you interact with, and take the first step to achieve your dreams.