The Orientation issue of The Blue and White will arrive on campus this week. We’ll be posting the entire magazine on Bwog over the next two weeks. Stay tuned!
As hordes of students slouch toward campus reluctant to see the start of a new semester, The Blue & White salutes five of them who refused to waste their summer internships pushing paper and fetching coffee.
As the Sex and Dating intern for Time Out New York, I always had a good answer to the inevitable, “So, what are you doing this summer?” question. The title was, of course, more than just a sure-fire conversation starter and I bore it well – and perhaps a little too proudly.
Like many editorial internships, mine involved the usual copy-editing, topical writing, and as the listing promised, “limited administrative work.” But for all the generic clerical duties, I reassured myself that the time spent scouring event listings for anything with ‘date potential’ –from stargazing nights at the High Line to “In the Flesh” sexy book readings and classes in dialogue writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop – would make my resume stand out in the stack.
No question or topic was too risqué as I became a shameless and unflappable interviewer. I’d call up managers of erotic bakeries and ask in a perky voice, “Is it true that your bums are covered in fondant?” The job had its unsexy moments to be sure, but I took the raunchy with the staid and kept my spirits high, reminding myself how much I was like Carrie Bradshaw.
Late one Thursday night near the end of my internship, I found myself on-assignment with a few friends at the entrance to a make-out party at a popular adult entertainment venue downtown. This was it, my final challenge, to be faced in a metallic minidress and black pumps. Lips glossed and eyebrows cocked, I strutted towards the dimly-lit entrance with all the confidence of an experienced Sex and Dating intern. “You got ID?” interrupted a bouncer sharply. Caught off-guard, I stumbled backwards, met his eyes with uncertainty, opened and closed my mouth. Didn’t he know who I was? I looked sheepishly at my friends’ uneasy, underage faces. I’d blown it. Defeated, I walked away.
Meet Abelardo, the multicolored parrot star of Plaza Sésamo, Latin America’s version of Sesame Street. Abelardo may be just a Muppet, but he is basically my boss — as the International Research intern for Plaza Sésamo, I have spent countless hours this summer in support of his work educating millions of Spanish-speaking children.
He and I aren’t that different, really. Abelardo, the first and only cousin of Big Bird, is eager to solve problems and learn about new cultures, and that happens to be exactly why I took on this internship. Whether I’m selecting the most attractive images from Muppet photo shoots, researching racial tolerance in other countries, or analyzing cell phone usage surveys of Nigerian farmers, my job requires me daily to confront the challenging complexities of cultural differences as I help the staff of the Sesame Workshop to create educational programming.
Abelardo has also demonstrated for me some of the basic tenets of children’s television. For instance, all bullying must be strictly verbal, never physical. Teaching sharing should be taught by showing one child give a portion to another child. And even though Sesame Workshop champions female empowerment, most boys under the age of four still do not take female educators seriously and would rather a male Muppet explain the workings of the number “2.”
My political and sociological sensibilities could, at times, earn me a stern look, like they did when I implied that an Egyptian female Muppet donning a ponytail is promoting overtly Western values. But I tried always to channel my inner toddler and memories of those happy hours spent watching a colorful, clumsy bird stumble over the alphabet. Personal viewpoints aside, at least I now know my anthropology major and all that talk of cultural hegemony actually has an application in the real world — or at least the world of Plaza Sésamo.
On a Tuesday morning in June, I touched down at Mother Teresa International Airport in Tirana, Albania, for my U.S. State Department internship. I knew next to nothing about the country, the State Department, or my duties pertaining to either. Jet-lagged from a long, uncomfortable flight, I found myself on my first day of work walking around the poorest suburbs of Tirana, home to Albania’s worst living conditions.
The cityscape I saw that day was riddled with shoddily constructed homes and appalling sanitary conditions. Amid coal mines and thermal energy plants – Tirana and its environs also double as Albania’s industrial center – Romanis ported water back and forth from the Lanë, a river on the east side of town that moves slowly, thick with pollution. Two weeks later, I was put in charge of organizing the U.S. ambassador’s visit to one of these Romani refugee camps and met with embassy staff and their NGO counterparts to ensure that the visit ran smoothly.
Like many former Soviet states, Albania adores pretty much every aspect of America – even those aspects most of us here don’t find so wonderful. George W. Bush Street, President Wilson Square and the “Laura Bush steak” on a local restaurant menu, for instance, are not gimmicks geared at tourists, but are what Albanians, I came to understand, see as sincere appreciation for America’s aid to the country’s refugees and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo.
Although I devoted a lot of time to doing fieldwork and talking with Albanian people across the city, not all of the experience matched my idealized view of life in the Foreign Service, nor was Tirana quite what I expected. The city had only become the capital in 1920, and it has little cultural or historical heritage. But I looked for the best in the city’s seemingly lackluster culture despite the bad techno and bland meat dishes. Mornings involved traditional Albanian pastries and discussions of soccer and politics with the locals at nearby cafe.
These pleasantries were enjoyable of course, but the work at the embassy — even if less pleasant — was far more telling of the city’s history, politics and culture. At the embassy, I read cables about ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan and heard stories from diplomats about their military service in Turkmenistan at the time of the death of the local dictator, Turkmenbashi. I could have listened to all of Tirana’s techno and eaten all of its Laura Bush steaks and still not have gained as much a sense of the city’s sound and flavor as I got from hearing those first-hand accounts.
On any given morning, look at the front page of any national newspaper and you’ll be sure to find at least one headline telling of the latest developments in Afghanistan. After nine years, the place remains an endless fount of news. So for me, a history major intent on getting an insider’s look at journalism, an internship with the New York Times Bureau in Kabul sounded pretty perfect.
At the Times, there was, of course, the share of usual internship chores. Every day, I split my time between browsing the Internet for recent articles on Afghanistan and translating hours of Afghani politicians’ ramblings. But for all the mindless transcribing and typing, there was, in turn, the rush of covering breaking news. Contacts were surprisingly forthcoming when I approached them for interviews and information: from political leaders to police commanders, I wasn’t denied an interview once during the whole summer. Even over controversial issues, citizens readily volunteered their statements for the record – impressive in country where freedom of expression is still in its infancy.
But behind the thrilling news, I found stories of profound sadness. On a trip to the Western province of Herat, I stood by a photographer as he documented Afghani women who burn themselves as an act of both suicide and sacrifice. The photographer spent four days with the burn victims in a hospital, and I visited the hospital several times a day, but because of my sex I was forbidden from entering the women’s rooms. I spent the day in my hotel room translating and transcribing interviews instead. But these were not like the other tapes I had worked with. Sitting at my computer, I listened to the audio file: five words of an interview, followed by long stretches of painful screams as the doctor changed bandages or applied medicine.
On the second day of our trip, one of the patients died. As the ambulance snaked through the crowded bazaar, verses of the Quran played from loudspeakers attached to the roof, announcing that a corpse was on board. I followed closely behind, my stomach churning. As the ambulance turned into a narrow alley of dome-shaped mud houses, a little girl who had arrived before us chased after it, calling out “Maadar.” The body and the funeral procession moved inside the house. The ambulance was paid off. I stood in the narrow alley with my driver, in silence, listening to the sounds of mourning that filled the air.
Most Columbia students know about the system of tunnels that course below our campus, but few can actually navigate their way around the underground network with confidence. I like to think of myself as the exception to that rule. This summer I dedicated myself to learning the subterranean system. Come September I would be able to move from Dodge to Schermerhorn with all the stealth and speed of a ninja. Or so I thought.
That can’t be done, I quickly learned. There are cameras littering most of the tunnels. But my internship with CUIT’s Network Field Services (NFS) brought me as close to a complete knowledge of the Columbia tunnels as any undergraduate can have, though without the ninja skills. Working with NFS this summer not only gave me the access to the tunnels but also gave me more than enough free time to learn that I can use the tunnels to travel from any given point on campus to the next. The cameras serve mostly to prevent theft, and as a CUIT employee, it’s expected that I would be in the tunnels where much of the phone and Ethernet wiring is located.
While tracing wiring, I once stumbled across a path between Carman and Furnald. I wound up traversing a long, dim tunnel, silent save for an intermittent thud that grew louder as I continued to explore. Although my heart was pounding as I stepped deeper and deeper into the dark, I managed to resist the urge to scream. With my mind haunted by visions of all the unsavory subterranean trolls I might encounter before I reached the light at the end of the tunnel, an ascending flight of stairs suddenly deposited me on a sun-drenched plaza outside of Furnald.
Even more shocking than Columbia’s bowels though, are the things people leave behind at the end of the year. During my rounds I found many refrigerators — some clean, most rancid– some vacuum cleaners, a Playstation 2, and a slew of power strips and textbooks. While CUIT forbids its employees from reselling these items, it would be a tremendous journalistic oversight not to mention that some people may have “profited” off these fortuitous discoveries. …Well, really, just the PS2.
Ed. Adam Kuerbitz
Illustrations by Nora Rodriguez