Jean-Pierre ’19 leading a song writing workshop with students at a local school in a remote town in the countryside of Montenegro.
One of Lehigh’s most generous advocates for global learning is Lee Iacocca ’45 who established the Iacocca International Internship Program to support educating students for global leadership. Other Lehigh alumni, parents, and friends have also generously contributed to this program so approximately 100 students can participate in this fully-funded opportunity annually. In the seven years since the Iacocca International Internship Program began, nearly 500 students have interned in 46 countries.
Students live and work overseas for six to ten weeks, getting real-world professional experience while being immersed in a new culture. Students develop intercultural sensitivity and competency while significantly enhancing their career readiness.
In summer 2018, Lehigh internships were offered in 29 countries. International relations major and Pennsylvania native Jean-Pierre Villamar ’19 interned in Podgorica, Montenegro, at American Corner for eight weeks. Villamar shared his learning experience of being in a country where the native language is Montenegrin.
Describe your Iacocca international internship.
I had the pleasure of working for the American Corner in Podgorica, Montenegro, which is an office of American Councils for International Education, a U.S. State Department-run program. The main goals of the office are to make information about the United States available to the foreign public at large. I was the first American and Lehigh student to intern at the center in the capital city. As an intern, I primarily helped local students with their English language skills, U.S. college entrance exams, and community service in Podgorica. A very interesting connection that I made was with my coordinator, Ivan Vuksanovic, who is the American Councils representative for Montenegro and a Lehigh Global Village alumni himself.
What experiences or skill sets were you hoping to obtain by participating?
Being an international relations major, I hoped to obtain experience working in a foreign country. The opportunity to work directly with citizens of a different country was the most appealing aspect of this internship and why I chose to apply. The main skill set I hoped to obtain was improving my interpersonal skills with coworkers in a professional environment where I could get used to the functions of day-to-day life in an office. I knew about the prestige of the program and was eager to apply as soon as the application process opened up.
Were there any obstacles that you encountered?
The biggest difference I encountered was the work culture that existed in the office and the society overall. In Montenegro, things typically go at a slower pace than they do here in the United States. For example, during my first week at the center, my coworkers offered me coffee and then proceeded to engage in conversation for over an hour. I was definitely initially shocked by the lax attitude in the workplace, but I was able to adapt to this difference in culture. They tend to value socializing a bit more than we do here in the United States. Relationships are at the center of every situation in Montenegro, and I really grew to understand what that fully meant over my time there.
Another obstacle was my living situation, which was a home-stay, where I had to learn how to communicate with people who spoke very basic English. Initially, it was quite difficult to ask questions like, “Where is the local gym?” But eventually, my host father and I developed our own form of nonverbal communication where we spoke basic words in each other’s language and gestured or showed images on our phones. We even got to the point of hysterical laughter on several occasions!
Were you able to overcome the obstacles and how?
I did not really have any major obstacles to overcome, but having an open mindset allowed me to adapt to the different culture. Whenever anyone I met suggested that we do something, I was always willing to participate to learn something new. I feel that this helped me a lot when it came to learning things about the culture in Montenegro and making the most of my time abroad. I tried to adapt to their culture rather than imposing mine. The best tool I had to help me adapt was my willingness to ask questions. When I didn’t know what a statue represented or what a word meant in the language, I just asked whomever I was with. It helped me appreciate my surroundings so much more and gave me knowledge I did not have before.
How did you benefit from your international experience?
The confidence that I gained from my international experience was definitely the biggest takeaway from my internship. I left for Montenegro uncertain if whether or not I would succeed in a professional setting abroad, but I came back with the confidence that I can function and even excel in that type of setting. This feeling was reinforced by the valuable advice I was given by coworkers, diplomats, and even the former president of Montenegro whom I met. One of my bosses at my job told me to never settle for second in anything I do in life, and it will take me as far as I want.
Was the experience different than the anticipated outcome?
Initially, I was quite nervous to spend two months in a country I knew very little about. Montenegro was once part of Yugoslavia, which definitely had more exposure on the world stage as a unified state. Once the country went into a civil war and Montenegro became an independent state in 2006, it did not receive much recognition outside of the region. However, I left the country being an ambassador of all of the great things it has to offer like its beautiful landscape and the most hospitable people I have encountered. I had no real sense of what it would be like, but now I can help educate my friends about Montenegro.
How did the experience prepare you for your professional aspirations or life skill set?
For my future career aspirations, I hope to work for the State Department in an embassy. The opportunity to work in the American Corner in Montenegro provided me with insight to an embassy in Europe and what they offer to undergraduate students who are looking to work for them. I personally was able to meet with the public service officer for Montenegro who sat down with me and discussed his career path with me. Professionally, the ability to engage with so many diplomats and public servants is exactly what I needed in terms of real exposure to the field.
Would you recommend other students to participate in a study abroad experience and why?
Without question. Even for students who are not necessarily looking to work abroad in the future, the rewards that come from living with people who have completely different backgrounds is something that will be valuable in any work setting. More likely than not, the job that students will obtain after university will be diverse and there are few opportunities that expose you as much as study abroad programs do. It helps with independence, confidence, and relationship building. I loved my experience so much that I plan on returning to Montenegro within the next two years.
What would you say to those who provided this opportunity?
To Mr. Lee Iacocca, I would say more than “thank you” if another phrase existed. He provided me with much more than just an internship experience. He provided me with a vision of my future life and career that I may not have been able to obtain without his generous gift to the school. I value the sense of pride that I carried in Montenegro when I said that I was a Lehigh student. In retrospect, I am even more proud that I am an alumnus of the Iacocca Internship Program, which I consider to be the best Lehigh has to offer!