Internships: Blessings in Disguise

by Ghida M. Krisht

Mostly, and in my recent experience, internships serve as a determining point in your relationship with the subject of your study. It is a personal experience; what you receive depends on what you invest. It is a busy time adjusting to the demands of an office and/or a field setting, where ideally you keep yourself at enough distance from the setting, such that you may comfortably assess your experience from both professional and academic viewpoints.

At the Friedman School of Nutrition, three degree programs, Agriculture Food and Environment (AFE); Food Policy and Applied Nutrition (FPAN); and Nutrition Communication (Nut Comm), require an internship with a minimum of 350 usually completed in the summer after your first academic year. This requirement is a blessing in disguise for the student. It serves as a golden opportunity to gain exposure to theory in direct and indirect application, to network with professionals and like-minded people, and to indicate the level of skill you need to acquire or improve. Among the many positive educational outcomes of internships are practical experience, new skills, and improved attitudes and behaviors.  An internship is the beginning of a career path with continued learning (continued learning implies that you learn your likes/dislikes).

I myself as an FPAN student recently returned from a 6 month internship (extended from a 2 month assignment) in Cairo, Egypt at the United Nations World Food Programme, Cairo Country Office.  From the time I secured my internship, through my duration in Cairo, and now during my post-internship return, the experience repeatedly tests my sense of exploration and readiness to take initiative. Mostly, I was in the right place at the right time, but my willingness to learn video editing as part of my collaboration in a documentary shooting on Egypt’s malnutrition and flour fortification program, enabled me to capitalize on the experience. I will share with you a story about an Upper Egyptian couple, Mona and Sombol, who were the main characters of the documentary created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Along the lush green banks of the Nile River in Luxor, Upper Egypt, the poorest region in Egypt, I followed Sombol through the fields to his airy brick home. Sombol, who ferries tourists across the Nile every day, barely makes enough money to support his mother, his sister, and his nine-month pregnant wife, Mona. This newlywed couple is a few weeks shy of welcoming baby Mohamad as the first addition to their family.

Baby Mohamad’s conception comes after a sad and unfortunate miscarriage of twin boys during a previous pregnancy attempt. The doctor told Mona that her twins had been dead in her womb for 21 days. Upon analyzing Mona’s blood test, the doctor confirmed the cause of the tragic loss: folic acid deficiency. Mona was then instructed to take folic acid supplements a month prior to pregnancy and continue through to the end of the first pregnancy trimester.

In her strong and grounding presence, Um Sombol, Mona’s mother-in-law, shared the story of her daughter’s multiple miscarriages due to iron and folic acid deficiencies. “This will be my first grandchild, I will get him gold tokens to ward off the evil eye and I will make him so happy” says Um Sombol. Mona and Um Sombol expressed much enthusiasm for the government’s efforts to fortify baladi bread. Their glee was a testimony of appreciation to the government of Egypt for recognizing a woman’s right to safe motherhood with a successful birth outcome.

Long before meeting Mona and Sombol, I saw the importance of folic acid and iron during pregnancy as nutrition messages on fortified cereal labels in the United States, as key nutrients praised by academics for their significant role in producing red blood cells for the fetus, and as important factors in preventing neural tube defects. As an intern for the UN World Food Programme, Egypt Country Office, my work concentrated on the social marketing component of the national flour fortification program introduced in 2008.

As a result, my technical communication of nutritional problems and interventions related to folic acid and iron deficiency tremendously improved. Although statistics on malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in Egypt are widely used to highlight the problem of hunger, numbers seem to numb and distance us from the gravity of the issue. Therefore, it is of utmost importance during the lifetime of the project to foster continuous communication, especially among the beneficiaries, as appropriate.

After a long talk with the family about the importance of nutrition and the benefits of the flour fortification program, Mona was most grateful for the chance to be educated and directly participating in an educational project, in which she represents Upper Egyptian malnourished pregnant and soon to be pregnant women. It is through education that the most vulnerable are empowered, their rights are respected, and their dignity is restored. This will ensure that the poorest Egyptians, of which the largest proportion lives in Upper Egypt, accept and continue to consume fortified flour.

Experiential education or the “internship requirement” is one of the most valuable gifts you can take with you from Friedman.

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