Learning beyond the classroom

Every year 250 students from the Faculty of Arts participate in internships that enrich their academic experience

The Faculty of Arts Internship Program provides students with valuable learning experiences that shape and develop their skills and knowledge beyond the classroom.

By interning at corporate and community organizations in Montreal and around the globe, students expand their academic and professional horizons and learn to engage in meaningful collaborations. Internships are a crucial opportunity to apply skills and knowledge acquired in the classroom to real-world problems. For many of the 250 students who participate in the internships each year, the experience eventually influences their academic and career plans.

A life-changing experience

Karlee Thomas chose to pursue a summer internship at the Desta Black Youth Network, based in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood. For Karlee, a U3 International Development Studies student minoring in Political Science, the experience proved life-changing.

Desta offers education, employability and entrepreneurship programming and opportunities for vulnerable black youth. Karlee interned for Desta’s Social Justice Department, which provides re-entry and advocacy services to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Karlee Thomas

Karlee began her internship in May 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Despite being in a pandemic, the internship experience was great,” she says. “My supervisor connected me with so many people, I eventually had a network of support.”

Karlee’s supervisor, Amanda Maxwell, was heading the social justice department while Desta was in a state of overhaul and transition. “We were in the midst of building the program from the ground up,” says Maxwell. Karlee was instrumental in this period of transition.

“I’m so grateful that she was able to help me and take something away from her time with us,” Maxwell says. “Karlee really helped lay the foundation of the program to where it is today.”

Social justice and poetry

During her internship, Karlee paid particular interest to the program’s pen-pal exchange program and restructured it to incorporate both her and the participants’ love of poetry. She oversaw Desta’s partnership, in the form of a poetry exchange program, with Volta, a collective of artists who call for anti-carceral and transformative justice within communities. This allowed participants to express themselves, safely and without judgement, through poetry and art.

By actively engaging with the program’s participants and their stories, Karlee learned that, for many of them, lack of positive mentorship during their youth and growing up in conditions of poverty were at the root of their incarceration.

Karlee was able to mobilize community resources to help participants protect their basic human rights and express themselves and their journeys in unexpected ways. For example, she worked with a carceral lawyer to voice a complaint on behalf of a participant whose security scale assessment report was filled with racial stereotypes and discrimination; in petitioning the Correctional Service of Canada for the protection of basic human rights for all inmates, Karlee opened a dialogue where these issues could be addressed.

Applying internship experience to research

Karlee’s experience at Desta strengthened her academic interest in the ways systemic racism and structural violence contribute to the incarceration of Black Canadians. Working with the program’s participants, she says, gave her a greater understanding of how the rise of Black incarceration rates reinforces the racial stereotype of the “dangerous Black criminal,” leading to punishment, rather than rehabilitation. In Professor David Austin’s course CANS 415: “Black Canada”, she later explored the topic of high incarceration levels among Black Canadians, which laid the foundation of a research paper that drew on her internship experience.

After completing the internship, Karlee also wrote a research paper for the INTD 499 Internship course under the supervision of Senior Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for the Study of International Development, Kazue Takamura.

Karlee’s first-hand experience advocating for participants in Desta’s social justice program influenced the focus of her research paper, which examined the importance of nongovernmental organizations in pressuring Correctional Service of Canada to uphold international human rights standards. “Black Canadians have been relegated to a second-class citizenship where the guarantees of equal rights and freedoms are not being realized,” she says.

A defining moment

After her internship, Karlee realized she wanted to keep working to help youth reach their highest potential. She has since started interning at the Quebec Board of Black Educators, where she continues to explore her interest in education as a universal human right and a powerful driver of economic development. “My internship with Desta Black Youth Network has really changed my life,” she says.

Following her graduation, Karlee hopes to work in the field of international development, with particular focus on poverty eradication through the education of girls and boys. “This goal has been shaped by Desta because I learned that we can create change by inspiring the youth of today.”

While pandemic-related travel restrictions have limited the availability of international internships over the past two years, Arts internships normally include a wide range of opportunities around the world. Students in previous years have worked for organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ecuador, the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in Geneva, and the Ghana Center for Democratic Development in Accra.

Many Faculty of Arts students, like Karlee, look back on their internship as a defining moment of their undergraduate experience.

Most Arts internships are made possible by the generous support of McGill alumni and the Arts Undergraduate Society. Students interested in pursuing an internship during their studies may apply for funding through various internship award opportunities.

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