Pamela Bernal, Honours Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Program Support Officer – Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCBL)
Embarking on the three-month journey that was my virtual internship, I knew well that challenges that had awaited me. While my cohort and I were duly prepared, there were some parts of this experience that each of us had to face head-on and adapt to in response to the changing needs of our organizations and our positions, the latter made even more unique as they were based online. Thankfully, the support, of supervisors and colleagues at the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCBL) and advisors at the Faculty of Social Sciences, eased my transition into the world of virtual internships and its expectations of me as a Program Support Officer for the CCBL’s Community Liaison Team and the Projects and Monitoring Team.
I began this experience with various objectives, but I believe the most important of these was to uphold the advice I gave myself after consulting various sources on what to expect through this experience: to be as patient, flexible, and open to learning anything as possible. Working at a distance for organizations that are affected by the realities of the COVID-19 public health crisis, issues of public order, and evolving security situations, one must be understanding that assignments and responsibilities change with the realities on-the-ground. Working for the Community Liaison Team, I listened to the weekly reports of my colleagues and was stricken and humbled by the intense experiences they encountered on a daily basis, experiences such as mounting insecurities threatening the stability of local communities and assassinations of local leaders and peers within or involved with the mine action sector in Colombia. Furthermore, in working with this team, I learned about the principles and components of integrated community assistance in this sector as well as some of the complexities of implementing humanitarian programs in unpredictable environments and situations, such as the ones the COVID-19 pandemic has presented. These circumstances have placed a significant strain on both assistance and demining projects for distinct but overlapping reasons.
Nevertheless, in working with the Projects and Monitoring Team, I was able to witness in real time how projects and programs were being modified and improved in response to unfolding realties. Using new and/or revised internal policies, operations protocols, and communication methods, the last of which especially interested me, the Projects and Monitoring team worked to ensure that projects implemented adaptation and mitigation strategies to account for new difficulties in the face of rising regional tensions and COVID contingencies. It was very interesting to see how much effort and coordination goes into the projects whose reports I helped review, for example, elements of general principles and objectives, considerations on ethical requirements, project/data management, knowledge production, risk management, guidelines for monitoring and follow-up practices, and feedback mechanisms for continual improvement, accountability, lessons learned, and improved practices.
Finally, despite being based outside of my host country, I learned so much about the mine action sector from the Colombian context and the pillars of mine action, specifically, mine risk education, mine clearance, and victim assistance. Moreover, taking this virtual internship opportunity allowed me to learn much more about myself, my preferences, and my work habits while contributing to an important mission. This virtual placement did not come without its challenges, but going the extra mile, reading reports from other departments, reaching out to other teams and offering additional support, and taking advantage of optional training and meetings that arose personally allowed me to gain the most that I could from this experience. I am grateful that I was given this opportunity as an international placement was always out of reach due to the costs and difficulties associated with temporarily relocating. Thus, I urge prospective applicants to research more about the virtual internship experience, research about the organizations to which you may want to apply, and truly consider this opportunity, be it in virtual or travel format, for it just may surprise you what you can learn and what you can do to facilitate positive change regardless of your surroundings and circumstances.