Journey to Interning at Aga Khan Foundation

The purpose of my internship has been to document how people have adapted in these truly difficult times, and it has been inspiring. That word is often overused, but I think it reigns true here. Like a lot of us (us being people in graduate school, people in development work, educators, or humans in general), I struggled with the sudden changes and continuous bad news since the onset of the pandemic.

Around this time last year, it became evident that my Summer 2020 internship near the UN Headquarters in New York City was not going to happen. New York City was quickly becoming the COVID-19 epicenter, and Penn had begun to suspend all non-essential travel. The opportunity arose to do the internship remotely, but at that time I was still hoping that the return to normalcy was just around the corner. Clearly, I was wrong.

Last Fall I got notified about a different internship opportunity, this time with the Aga Khan Foundation. They needed someone to develop communication pieces around the initiatives their Early Childhood Development teams took to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in several countries. With experience and interest in both early childhood development and education in emergency settings, I felt drawn to this opportunity. I began working, from my kitchen table in Philadelphia, in the middle of January 2021.

Scope of my Work

The start of my internship consisted of learning a lot about the scope of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan Foundation, and the Madrasa Early Childhood Program; the way these organizations intersect, their partnership with governments and other international organizations, how projects are funded, and how the ECD, education, and health sectors collaborate.

Perhaps it is worth noting that I am the only intern in this sector, and do not have contact with other AKF interns. Unlike some other large organizations, there was no formal internship training. However, my supervisor, the Global Advisor for ECD at Aga Khan Foundation, took the time to guide me through a lot of the information she had sent and to answer questions I had along the way. We meet once every week, and email more frequently.

Homemade toys and learning materials in Tanzania

After a couple of weeks, she connected me with AKF’s national ECD advisors in India, East Africa, and Tajikistan, and they connected me with others working in the field. I began learning more about the tangible ways AKF has collaborated with the governments and local organizations to continue services that are critical to early childhood development amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

AKF works in communities with adversities and barriers to ECD that existed before the pandemic- unreliable electricity, illiteracy, overcrowded daycares and schools, expensive phone data, a lack of books and toys. As we all know, COVID made everything worse, with school and daycare closures just being one way people have struggled. To ensure families maintained consistent access to ECD resources, a variety of innovations were developed and then adapted to local contexts, and delivered through different modalities. Some highlights include book and toy kiosks in Gurudatpurwa and Narmadapurwa in India, a nation-wide television program in Kenya called Night-Time Tales, adapting Tanzania’s School Readiness curriculum into a daily radio program, and putting up posters with parenting tips in common areas and sending images of these same posters through SMS or WhatsApp in Tajikistan.

Lessons Learned

Book and toy kiosk in India

A lot of what I described above- about the need for different modalities, for example – I learned in my courses in IEDP, through theories and case studies. I love a good case study, but they still come from authors I do not know, about people I do not know. For me, at least, it all still seems somehow abstract. In contrast, the other day I had a long meeting with the regional ECD director in India about a field visit he just returned from. One initiative there was sharing ideas with parents and caregivers ways to create homemade toys from easily found resources. He went on for several minutes telling me about the variations of these toys he saw while walking through the village, perhaps processing his own excitement around the project’s success.

Would it be different if I was writing this from one of these countries where AKF works, or if I was writing from one of their offices in DC, or Geneva? Yes, of course. But comparing this with a hypothetical situation does me no service, and does not make this experience any less valuable. Interning, to me, is about practicing what I have learned, refining skills, and learning new ones. I have been able to draw on things I learned in my classes and better cemented these concepts into my long term memory. It has helped me understand what I really need from a future employer, and what I can do without, and makes the transition from student to employee a bit smoother.