Finding the silver linings in the age of COVID-19

"There are always silver linings when you look for them. This year didn't go as expected, but no experience is wasted."

Ashley Rabinovitch - 30 September 2020

In the summer of 2019, Jenny Le embarked on a ten-week internship in Aachen, Germany. "I had traveled before but never spent an extended period of time in a different cultural context," says the Edmonton native. "I decided to take a risk."

RWTH Aachen's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) offers UAlberta students generous funding to conduct their own research projects. As a student in the honors program in Psychology at the Faculty of Science, Jenny was drawn to the opportunity to work with RWTH Aachen's psychiatry department on a study of neurofeedback therapy in adult patients.

While she enjoyed many aspects of German culture, particularly the emphasis on public transit and the collective passion for environmental protection, Jenny encountered more cultural differences than she expected. "Before my trip to Germany, I assumed that Germany would be very similar to North America, which wasn't the case at all," she remembers. "The stereotype about Germans being more reserved and blunt was certainly true in my experience, so that took some adjustment on my part." She also faced a language barrier as she navigated Aachen, a mid-sized city with a lower percentage of English speakers than cities like Berlin and Munich.

Despite the challenges of adapting to German language and culture, Jenny found so much value in her internship that she decided to commit to a second summer. She was looking forward to reconnecting with her friends and colleagues at RWTH Aachen in person, but the outbreak of COVID-19 forced her to cancel her trip and complete the internship virtually.

Working from her home in Edmonton, Jenny completed a project on psycholinguistics under the supervision of a faculty member at RWTH Aachen. Over the span of ten weeks, Jenny used an online research platform to recruit participants for an experimental study related to language acquisition. "The project directly relates to the field of psychology I plan to pursue in graduate school," she shares. "Overall, my UROP internship has helped me hone relevant skills for the future, from designing and conducting experiments to writing manuscripts, while giving me a more global perspective."

Jenny has the rare vantage point of having interned for the same institution in both a virtual and in-person capacity. "Obviously, working from home and working overseas look very different," she acknowledges. Instead of visiting museums, art galleries, and other cultural sites throughout Germany with students from the University of Alberta, Jenny participated in virtual site tours on Zoom. Instead of working in close proximity to her supervisor at the RWTH Aachen University, she navigated an eight-hour time difference as she communicated via email and video call.

"Even though it was different from my in-person experience, my virtual internship was still worthwhile," affirms Jenny. Without longer site visits, German language classes, and other group activities, she took advantage of more hours in the day to focus on her research project. She also found it significantly easier to recruit people to participate in a virtual study instead of visiting a lab. "There are always silver linings when you look for them," she believes. "This year didn't go as expected, but no experience is wasted."

Virtual Internships are a part of UAlberta International's Global Learning without Travel initiative. For more opportunities like this one, check out our Global Learning without Travel Hub.