Graduate degree programs at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy open a window onto an expansive career landscape. The school’s summer internship opportunities take the view of what’s possible to a whole other level.

London and New York are, of course, on Harris students’ internship destination wish lists. But so are Freetown, in Sierra Leone, and Erbil, in Iraq, as the scope of international opportunities available to Harris students increases, often thanks to connections made available by The Pearson Institute for the Study & Resolution of Global Conflicts.

Such was the case for Vera Jónsdóttir, MPP Class of 2022, who interned in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, at the Office of the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government

“Going to a foreign country allows you to learn much more from your environment than textbooks could ever teach you,” she said. “It was an outstanding contribution to my studies and experience.”

Vera Jónsdóttir, MPP Class of 2022, with Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

Jónsdóttir was an intern in the Foreign Policy Unit in the prime minister’s office, spending three months in the Priority Unit in summer 2021, setting the agenda for the government term and working on projects related to diplomacy and international cooperation — all from her office at the Council of Ministers.

“I am very interested in political science, government, and international relations,” said the Iceland native. “So it was terrific to learn about these subjects from the inside of a foreign government.”

“The only real surprise I had was the weather,” she said of going across the world. “Coming from Iceland, where if the temperature exceeds 20 degrees Celsius [68 degrees Fahrenheit], it’s in the newspaper, I was unused to the climate. The temperature frequently went up 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit].”

Evan Trowbridge, MPP'21

Pearson Fellow Evan Trowbridge, MPP’21, started last summer as an intern with the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a policy think tank based in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown. During the internship, Trowbridge transitioned into a full-time position with IGR as data manager, working on data-driven, evidence-based research in policy areas including education.

The job, he said, is a good fit because it allows him to use the tools he learned at Harris, such as statistics and econometrics. 

 President Julius Maada Bio, who has served as president of Sierra Leone since 2018, “has made a big push to lower the cost of public education,” Trowbridge said. “We know that's nominally the policy, but what did parents actually experience?”

To find out, Trowbridge spoke to stakeholders, gathered data on costs, and compared public and private education expenses to get a fuller picture of the nation’s education ecosystem, which ended up in an IGR report

And Trowbridge — who lives in an area in the Freetown hills that leads down to the coast — wasn’t the only Harris Public Policy intern to land in Sierra Leone.

Pearson Fellows Angelica Zocchi and Ana Camila Vasquez, both MPP Class of 2022, spent last summer in Freetown interning with the Wan Fambul National Framework. The government initiative in Sierra Leone, where a civil war ended only 20 years ago, is under the umbrella of an NGO, Fambul Tok International.

COVID-19 has halted many overseas internship opportunities. Trowbridge, for example, was supposed to be IGR’s summer 2020 intern before those plans were upended by the pandemic. Remote opportunities with organizations outside of the United States, meanwhile, continued. And Pearson Fellow Siobhan McDonough, MPP Class of 2022, interned remotely with London’s International Growth Centre, which works on international development.

Rebecca Wolfe

It’s that growing interest in international development careers driving the need for students to get more experience overseas, said Rebecca Wolfe, a Harris senior lecturer and executive director of international policy and development.

Such experience “is one of the most important criteria for employers in the international development field, even if you have a U.S.-based job,” Wolfe said. “They'll be sending you overseas and they want to know if you can handle it.”

“If you haven't worked in a different context yet, you need to ask yourself two questions: first, do you really want to do it? And second, are you culturally adaptable? In different contexts, things aren't going to work out the way you're used to. Sometimes things don't work at all.”

Salaries in developing countries are another issue to face. For Trowbridge, the job in Freetown “wasn’t a position I took for the compensation.”

But it was experience he was after, reflecting the types of opportunities he believes he could have gotten only at Harris. 

In cities other than Chicago, “at the end of the day, what was going to land you a job was running into somebody at the right bar or a cocktail party. And I felt like at Harris it was different: people were putting their energy into creating the right things, the right policies, and doing the work. I liked that energy,” said Trowbridge, who, before arriving in Chicago, spent four years in Central America working on prevention of crime, violence, and corruption, including with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).  

Now Trowbridge’s energy is directed at solving problems with IGR, where the core mission is to “bridge the gap between knowledge and policy, which requires a lot of data collection and analysis as well as presentation of findings to stakeholders,” said Aaron Hale, IGR’s head of business development and surveys.

“Evan really came on board at IGR at the right time,” Hale said. “He was given a few assignments to assess his skillset and to see what he would bring to IGR, and to see how comfortable he was working in a developing country. After only two weeks we knew that Evan would be a great addition to the IGR team.”

When Trowbridge started his internship in Freetown, he said, “I was feeling excited to apply the knowledge I spent years developing at Harris. And in a developing-world context, these skills are needed, and can make a lasting difference in people’s lives.”

Being able to apply Harris skills in the real world also motivated Jónsdóttir as she chose to head to Iraq. “Using what I learned in the classroom at Harris to work on policies that positively impacted people was an exceptional experience,” she said.

“The internship helped me better understand what direction I want to take in my career after Harris,” she said. “Although still undecided, I’m most interested in working in international affairs or government, whether internationally or back home in Iceland. I am especially keen on working on policies that decrease inequality and improve social welfare.”