Everywhere is a Classroom: Learning Through Internships Abroad

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Before I moved to Melbourne, I thought of my semester abroad like a hands-on research experience. As an Urban Studies major, I had spent years studying and discussing all aspects of urban life — city governance, urban planning, social inequity, affordability, transportation, design, and so on. Over and over again, critical discourse on how to improve cities referenced Melbourne. Australia’s second-largest metropolis had undergone an ambitious transformation over the previous thirty years, from forgettable backwater to the most livable city in the world (seven years in a row, according to The Economist). Reading about Melbourne’s laneway activation, intricate tram network, and boulevard pedestrianization, I knew I had to see the city for myself. And what better way to do that than to live there?

Because in situ experience is the most effective way to study a city, I knew I would have to learn about Melbourne’s built environment in spaces beyond the classroom. I decided, to that end, that I would pursue an internship.

Logistics: Securing a Position

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that my internship abroad came about partly through luck. The summer before studying abroad, I worked at a public space consultancy in New York called Project for Public Spaces. One day, we had a guest speaker give a talk during lunch: Lucinda Hartley, the co-founder and CEO of CoDesign Studio, an urban design organization in—you guessed it—Melbourne, Australia. Needless to say, I was excited to sit in on her lecture and promptly approached her to speak about my plan to study in Melbourne later that year. She offered me her business card and I assured her that I would be in touch.

By February, after communicating with several other potential employers in Australia and deciding that CoDesign offered the best opportunity to learn about Melbourne’s urban design revolution, I was submitting an application to the organization’s internship program. I was invited for an interview the following week and began working the week after that.

People to Meet, Places to See

While classroom settings at the university exposed me to many local Australian students, my deepest, most memorable interactions with Australian people came through my work at CoDesign. Most of the office’s dozen employees were from Down Under. Through conversations I had over lunch or between desks, I learned a lot about daily life in the country, including weekend footy leagues (a distinctly Australian sport) and Melbourne’s vibrant music scene.

More broadly, I absorbed the laid-back nature of Australian work culture, mainly in that we were not expected to spend endless hours in the office. Breaks were truly breaks and, in especially lighthearted moments, we were encouraged to create and wear funny hats for staff meetings and outings. Every Friday, we ordered lunch for the entire office and ate at communal tables, then went to neighborhood pubs for Happy Hour at 5pm.

The most exciting part of my internship, and certainly an opportunity that I encourage other interns abroad to take advantage of, was meeting people outside the office. CoDesign happened to have a project that involved several community partners from across Melbourne’s suburbs.

There was one Friday where the entire staff piled into two minivans (wearing funny hats, of course) and drove around to meet with our community partners. I made friends that day with whom I still keep in touch and I saw parts of the city that I never otherwise would have seen. Late in the semester, I volunteered with some other CoDesign staffers to go out onto the street in one particular suburb to gather public input on street renovation projects. I spoke with dozens of ordinary Australians, listening to them express frustration or satisfaction over local issues I knew nothing about.

While my patently non-Australian accent raised brows (and perhaps some distrust) at times, I found those casual conversations about pertinent issues to be enlightening.  It was, in a sense, a crash course on everyday Melbourne—a way to get out into the community and speak with people who are outside the self-selecting group of individuals that often interact with study abroad students.

Learning How a Country Works

In any professional setting, you tend to learn a lot about the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts in which you work. This was no different for my time at CoDesign Studio. In reading reports, attending workshops, speaking to government officials, and collaborating with colleagues at CoDesign Studio, I began to build the same knowledge regarding Melbourne’s history and political structure.

The most compelling learning moment in my Australian work experience came during the middle of the semester, when I opted to attend a public workshop on Indigenous Perspectives in City Planning with a few colleagues. Because workshops are inherently interactive, I had the chance to speak with multiple local students, planners, and town council members. I learned about the history of land dispossession in Melbourne and laws currently in place to mitigate—or even reverse—the effects of white-dominated planning practices in Australia.

The most intriguing thing about studying abroad in a country that is historically and culturally similar to your own is that, by learning about what is happening in your host country, you are also learning about what isn’t happening at home. Being told that Australian planning programs are required to maintain Indigenous educators on their faculties, for instance, I learned that American planning programs are sorely lacking in such provisions.

From Office to Classroom to Home and Back Again

In exciting and surprising ways, my academic and professional experiences in Melbourne and New York played off of one another. Because I pursued work in an area of deep personal interest, I found many overlaps between my work in the office and the classroom. I found my study of Australian histories of police control in public spaces, as well as of community gardens in Melbourne suburbs, to be very helpful when writing reports and partaking in the Indigenous Perspectives workshop.

The effect worked in the opposite direction as well. I conducted my final research project in ‘Case Studies in Landscape Architecture’ on the Point Cook Pop-up Park, a project executed under CoDesign Studio’s guidance by one of our community partners.

The interconnectedness of my professional and academic experiences has extended well beyond Melbourne. Since returning to school, I have implemented many of the things I learned at CoDesign in both workplace and extracurricular settings. Having an international point of reference has proven particularly useful in determining best-practices at home, primarily because Melbourne serves as a beacon of urban design success.

Even more importantly, I gained substantial and meaningful experience in working collaboratively with colleagues and members of the public. My experiences in Melbourne will transfer well into my future career plans as an urban designer. Even in its most challenging moments, my semester interning in Melbourne gave me the tools to tackle future professional challenges with greater agility and creativity.

Aaron Smithson is an Urban Studies, Architectural Theory, and History student at Columbia University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia in Spring 2018.

Article by Aaron Smithson