By: Rizpah Bellard
This past December, I was fortunate enough to be able to intern in Cali, Colombia for three weeks – for free. As a graduate student. It sounds unbelievable, right? Trust me, I was skeptical until the end of my first week in Cali. But with a lot of persistence and flexibility, and some financial support from friends and family, I was able to make it happen.
Let me rewind a bit – I am currently a first-year graduate student studying International Human Rights with a concentration in Forced Labor & Human Trafficking. I attend school in Denver, Colorado so after my first encounter with snow in October, I vowed to myself that I would be either South of the equator, or in Colombia, for my winter break for a) sun, b) to speak Spanish all day, every day, and c) for my 25th birthday. I quickly began to look for short-term internship opportunities, and funding to go along with it, to make this possible.
After about 5 days of telling everyone I came into contact with in my program (from my Dean to fellow classmates) that I’m looking for a way to head down South in December, I was directed to several professors who had done work in Latin America. I eventually found my way to a professor who had done extensive research in Colombia for his Ph.D. I walked into his office, introduced myself, and told him I was interested in doing an internship in Colombia for the winter and needed his help. He agreed to help me but let me know that I would be doing 97% of the work; I said OK, no problem.
Man, did I bite off more than I could chew. Maybe this is adulthood, maybe this is graduate school but the only thing I was really given by said professor was the contact information to the Director of the organization that I would later end up working with. I had to devise an internship in collaboration with my would-be-supervisor; I had to quickly solidify my living arrangements; I had to map out funding streams; I had to monitor outgoing and returning flight prices; and I still had to go to all of my classes, Monday – Friday.
Honestly…I would be remiss if I did not tell you that I thought it would be easy. While I was working on what my internship was going to be, I was simultaneously pitching different ideas to one funding source (thankfully it worked out). In doing so, I had to go back and forth between the organization and the funder to make sure that whatever my short-term internship was going to entail, it satisfied requirements for both parties. Let me not forget to mention that my partner organization only spoke Spanish, so I had to translate everything between Spanish and English and back to Spanish weeks before I even left for Colombia – while being a full-time student with a 16 credit course-load.
Fast forward 2 weeks into November, days before my quarter ends, and I was able to secure funding for a 150-hour internship in Cali, Colombia. But of course, nothing is as easy as it seems – I would not end up receiving my $2,200 grant until mid-December, two weeks after the proposed start date of my internship.
So naturally, I panicked. Days before Thanksgiving, I was relying on this one pot of money to buy my flight to Colombia (even though I was told, since childhood, to never put all my eggs in one basket; this is why). Despite working 3 jobs, I was barely making it by; I definitely did not have the money to put down for a flight. My only resort was to ask around: I asked my parents; my brothers; and close friends for some money to buy my flight to Colombia and to hold me for about two weeks until I would receive all of my grant money and be financially secure. Something like this can only work in Latin America because had I needed to buy a flight to South Africa or Cambodia…. I would have been watching documentaries all winter long in my bed.
Days before my departure from Denver to Cali, I got the money to buy my initial flight and to keep me fed and housed for two weeks. I was definitely apprehensive upon arriving to Colombia because I was missing my main funding source, but I was quickly thrown into the work and was not given much time to think about finances that just were not there. I eventually ended up getting all of my funding, repaying my friends, and was living comfortably in Cali for the remainder of my internship – for free.
To end, this was a long journey; and this is only the financial side of it. Prior to graduate school, I was always told that no money (i.e. grants, scholarships, and not loans) is given to graduate students for tuition, housing, food, internships…basically graduate students are without almost everything and have to make it work. But with a lot of networking, persistence, and motivation, I managed to get $2,200 to do a 150-hour internship in South America during a school break.
A few key takeaway points I have for anyone who is looking to travel por gratis are the following: one, plan well in advance. You want to be gone by December? Start planning in August/September. Two, look for multiple funding sources. By looking into different funding sources, you can ask for smaller amounts of money that are most likely going to be approved over one-lump sum. And three, network, network, network! You never know what you’re missing out on if you don’t mix-and-mingle. So what if a professor isn’t in your department – reach out and say hello if you find something they do of interest to you. You never know who you’re going to meet or what opportunities can come your way.
This is not something you hear about often, heck maybe not ever, especially for Black women. None of my Black classmates were able to travel for free like I did, so I can see why it is unknown or unspoken information. But as I have learned, just because no one else is talking about it or doing it, does not mean it cannot be done. At my predominantly White school, I, as a first-generation first-year Black woman graduate student, made it happen. I kept my goal in mind the whole time, and through every obstacle, I made a way.