Career Moves: An internship with diplomatic impact
Elon University senior Alexandra Cantone authored a report on women's roles in countering violent extremism in Saudi Arabia as part of a summer internship at the Institute for Gulf Affairs, a Washington think tank to which she applied with help from faculty and the Student Professional Development Center.
Serving as the assistant director of joint crisis conferences hosted in recent years by Elon's Model UN program has required senior Alexandra Cantone to research many of the human rights issues at play in the Middle East.
So when the political science and international studies double major from Greencastle, Pennsylvania, learned last semester of a summer internship opportunity at the Institute for Gulf Affairs, she immediately recognized how her knowledge of the region could be a benefit to the nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
In that internship, Cantone coordinated with professionals in the U.S. Department of State to produce a report on promoting women's rights in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative nations in the Middle East. And she credits her professors and staff in the Student Professional Development Center for helping to make that experience possible.
Cantone is the first person to be featured during the 2015-16 academic year in a series of E-net profiles on the successes of students and alumni who have used the Student Professional Development Center to find job and internship openings, help with graduate school placements, or prepare for interviews and improve applications with guidance from staff.
She recently answered questions from the SPDC about her experience.
Tell me about the company and your role as an intern.
The Institute for Gulf Affairs is an independent think tank located in Washington, D.C., that focuses on disseminating information from Persian Gulf countries and producing critical analyses of the politics within the region. As a policy analyst at the institute, I worked all summer on a report addressing the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and how empowering women in the Kingdom is a crucial part of countering violent extremism. The report, “Woman Up! Promoting Saudi Women’s Rights to Counter Violent Extremism,” highlights key societal factors that enable extremism to burgeon, discusses how women are most affected by these factors, and offers a comprehensive plan of action for the United States to promote women’s rights in the Kingdom.
While working on this report, I met periodically with a few individuals from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the State Department to discuss the implementation of such projects and programs. These professionals at the State Department also read over my report and gave me feedback concerning its proposals.
Lastly, I was a panelist at the Gulf Institute’s event where we launched the report. Sitting in the audience were a few people from the State Department as well as the Department of Defense.
How did your interest in the internship develop?
As an international studies and political science double major, I have always been very interested in international relations. What really got me involved in Middle Eastern politics has been my participation in Elon’s Model United Nations. Every semester our organization runs a joint crisis conference where International Relations students at Elon participate. I have been an assistant director for these conferences for the past two years, which requires me to have an extensive knowledge in the politics of Middle Eastern countries. As an assistant director, I write extensive background guides on the history of countries in the crisis and create realistic mini crises for students to solve.
The highly intricate crises that are evolving in the Middle East have always been of interest to me, especially since my participation in Model UN began. I love learning about this region.
What did you learn from the experience?
While working at the institute, I bettered my negotiation skills by meeting with professionals working in the State Department. When I would meet with them and propose my project ideas on ways to promote women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, they were always ready to argue any idea that I suggested. I was well prepared for this and was always able to offer a counter argument. I became a lot better at asserting myself in such situations and was always able to argue all of my points with concrete arguments and evidence of similar models that had worked in the past.
Through this, I learned to be much more analytical. I would think of any possible obstacles to developing these programs and brainstorm ways to get around them. My writing also improved while drafting up these reports and I also gained a deeper knowledge of the influence think tanks and NGOs actually have in Washington.
Who did you work with in Student Professional Development Center to prepare for your internship, and what help did you receive?
I worked with Sara Shechter to edit my resume multiple times to make sure that I was able to present my experiences in the best way possible. She has always been very helpful in giving me advice on presenting myself professionally and in a way that will attract future employers.
How would you mentor and assist Elon students in achieving their career goals?
I would give them honest advice, tell them about my experiences, and discuss what I had to do to achieve my goals. I would sit down with them and ask them what they ultimately want to achieve and help them figure out the steps that they need to take in order to get there.
This is exactly what I did. My first internship was working for Maryland State Sen. Chris Shank and I loved my time at his district office. But it was there that I realized I missed the international aspects of politics. I then knew that my ultimate goal was to work in the State Department or one day become an ambassador. To achieve this goal, I knew that I needed to get an internship in Washington and start networking now. I never would have thought that I would already be meeting with people from the State Department to discuss my ideas on countering violent extremism and promoting women’s rights abroad.
However, it was not very easy finding this internship. In fact, I had applied to multiple others before one of my professors and mentors, Chalmers Brumbaugh, suggested I contact the Gulf Institute because he felt it would be a good fit. This is why I would also suggest talking to professors about internships that they know of or any alums working in fields that are of interest. Elon has an excellent alumni network and alums are normally very willing to give any advice they can.
If students have questions for me they can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What recommendations would you share with other students about the SPDC?
Don’t be afraid of the SPDC. I know a lot of students are nervous to go or feel they just don’t have the time, but trust me, it’s worth it. I’ve gone multiple times to have someone look over my resume as well as reserving rooms to have interviews. I have always left having learned something and feeling confident in going out to find a job or internship.
Which faculty members did you work with to prepare for your internship/employment and what help did you receive?
I have always worked with Chalmers Brumbaugh, whether in class, Model UN, or just in getting some advice. Chalmers was the one who told me about this internship and suggested that I call up the director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, Ali Al-Ahmed, and talk to him about getting an internship. Chalmers said that it would be a great fit and it definitely was.
As I said before, it’s important to take advantage of the relationships you build with your teachers. Elon is not a large school and the small class sizes foster these relationships between students and teachers. They want you to succeed and you can learn a lot from them inside and outside of the classroom. Go to their office hours and talk about some of the things that you’re interested in and what you want to do. Ask them if they’ve had any experience in those areas and get their advice on how you can achieve your career goals.