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Monday, April 01, 2013

Outside the Comfort Zone: Finding my Voice in a Summer Internship in Argentina


I didn’t quite know what to expect from my internship in Buenos Aires. I chose the organization I was to work with—Ashoka Public Innovators— because I loved its vision which, simply put, professes that every individual can be a ‘changemaker.’ But I knew that interning at such a large, global organization meant that I would probably forfeit the opportunity to be on the front lines, to manage and do projects that were of my own creation. I expected to be doing what most interns do: brew the coffee, fill in the databases, and attend to all the little to-do’s the supervisor just isn’t able to get to. But I was wrong.

While Ashoka is large and expansive with offices all around the world, its office in Argentina, as the director told me on my first day, is ‘bien chicatita’ (really small), serving as a workspace for, on a good day, just 4 to 5 people. On the one hand it’s smallness meant that I would come to know my coworkers incredibly well, often joining them for hours long lunches each day. Our meals would be ones that were elaborately laid out on the kitchen table that sat right there in the very middle of the office’s reception area. Our conversations on politics and culture, America and Argentina would span for hours and would follow us throughout the day until we would catch up again, be it at teatime or when we bid each other goodbye at the end of each workday. These conversations soon became the lifeblood of my experience, the primary medium through which I came to understand Argentina and her people. 

But Ashoka’s smallness could also be intimidating at times. It was made clear to me on my first day that I was not to be some lowly intern. I was to be a part of the team. I was a coworker and my supervisor—who insisted that she was not in fact my supervisor but my co-collaborator—would cringe when I would say: “What would you prefer? What do you think?” “No, nosotras (we)” she would correct me, wagging her finger and reminding me once more that our decisions were to be made not apart but together and that our relationship was not vertical but horizontal.

And of course, then there was this obvious challenge: I was to do all of my work in Spanish, a language that I loved but that was clearly not my own. It was a language that I was still trying on and tailoring to fit the English version of me that everyone else in my life knew so well. At the beginning, the Spanish Inesha was visibly scared, a bit slow, and had absolutely no personality. She stumbled. She misspoke. She corrected herself. She was fluent in word but not fluent in confidence, the latter wavering each day as she acclimated to a new city, a new office, and a new way of doing everything from making coffee to saying hello (which required kissing not shaking hands.) But the Spanish Inesha soon learned to navigate her way around the office, the streets, and the big open space in her mind between America and Argentina.

The first day I arrived in the office, my coworker gave me the passwords and usernames for all the major social media accounts and databases she took care of and tasked me with essentially rearming the program’s entire communications strategy. An undergraduate straight out of her first year of college who was anything but sure of herself in this new environment, I was intimidated to say the least. I knew I had signed up for more than I had expected and, in retrospect, that was probably the best thing I did. For it meant that I would have to learn quickly, stretching both mind and muscle to adapt to my first workplace environment.

Being the person behind the megaphone—the person, that is, who does the updating and contacting with young social entrepreneurs new and old via modes of communication that range from single word tweets to emails to carefully thought-out blog posts—is not exactly who I expected to be. But it is who I became. The words I chose, the messages I ‘framed,’ and the promotional materials I created were used to attract new entrepreneurs and inform them of Ashoka’s services. It still amazes me that when young people discover Ashoka Argentina, they will do so most probably through the mediums I helped create and design, from the website to the Facebook page to the prezi presentation we pulled together. I, the intern who was still learning how to ‘argentizar’ her Spanish, was the conduit connecting the youth of Argentina to Ashoka. 

And as more and more of my words—my posts and tweets, Facebook messages and announcements—were shared with Argentines near and far, I came to be more comfortable with a Spanish that I had never learned, in a context and setting that were not my own. You see the truth is, just as I was beginning an internship that had me flexing all of my communication skills, I myself felt as if I was losing my voice. At the beginning of my internship, I would sit around that lunch table confused and scared, feigning comprehension of slang and words that would ricochet around the table like time bombs I had to unpack before they exploded. It was uncomfortable. But with each conversation, I learned the magic of stepping outside your comfort zone and surrounding yourself with that which is entirely foreign to you. I found that your voice doesn’t necessarily always come fromwithin you; sometimes it comes from the things outside your window, the things that speak to you. And in a way, it was during my time in Buenos Aires, amidst all the new and unknown, that I felt that voice speaking to me most clearly, asking me, what do you want to do? And as I started to answer that question, I ceased to just have conversations with Argentines. I started to have a very real conversation with myself as well, a conversation that in the oft-consuming world that is college will give me the clarity of mind and confidence of will to really listen to myself and do what I want to do.