Maryland Summer Intern Rescues Refugees

By Sonia Su

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Intern Profile

Name: Christie Smith
Title: Case Management Intern at International Rescue Committee
School: University of Maryland Baltimore County
Major: International Studies and Spanish

Watch the video on to get an inside look into a case management internship.

When a child asked her for help on algebra homework, Christie Smith was stuck.

“How do you explain algebra to someone who doesn’t speak as much English?” Smith said.

When working at the Baltimore-based Refugee Youth Project, Smith said many students talked to her about how much trouble they were having in school. These students who came from refugee families or are refugees themselves still had to take the Standardized Aptitude Test or SAT.

“But this was what was expected of them. You know how hard the SAT reading section is—imagine if English is not a language you’re particularly good at speaking or reading and you’re expected to take this test in order to get to college, in order to have this future everyone keeps telling you you need to have,” Smith said.

Continuing her passion for working with the international population, Smith has been interning this summer at the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization, in the Baltimore office. Unlike the other nearly 40 interns, she is among the 20 students who attend school in Maryland being paid through the Walter Sondheim Jr. Maryland Nonprofit Leadership Program.

However, Smith said she knows one IRC intern who said she had not wanted to do unpaid work, so her mom offered to pay her instead of having her daughter choose a waitressing job, as an alternative way of payment.

“She was saying it was big struggle for her right now because on one hand, she could just get a waitressing job and make a ton of money this summer, but then, this is going to give her so much more valuable experience, so she actually just worked out a deal with her mom,” Smith said.

As a nonprofit, the IRC directs money it receives toward its clients. Despite knowing friends who are being paid to intern in other fields, Smith said many people at the IRC are passionate about what they do, even though they are unpaid.

“If I didn’t [have passion], I could be waitressing this summer and making a whole lot more money,” she said.

As a case management intern, Smith works with a caseworker in welcoming refugees and arranging basic services for those embarking on life in a new country.

She said her favorite thing to do is what is called a “first day office visit.”

“Within the first five days, [clients] have to come to our office and we meet with them,” she said. “We basically tell them everything they’re going to be looking forward to the next few months. … I tell them all about the different departments and resources that they have. And we have to fill out some paperwork, and we end up driving them around to get enrolled in different programs and services, so it’s a long day.”

But it’s all worth it, because she is one of the first people they see in this country, she said.

“That’s such an amazing feeling,” Smith said. “I try to be as friendly as possible because I want to really feel like they’re welcome here.”

But communication can be challenging, even though the organization has translators. Because she accompanies clients to doctor’s offices and other places, a lot of time is spent in cars and waiting rooms.

“It would be nice to be able to talk to the clients during that time, so I kind of have to get creative with communication sometimes. That’s been a little bit challenging. I mean, the alternative is that I just don’t talk to them, but that’s no fun,” Smith said.

Because of these challenges, Smith said patience and a willingness to embarrass oneself are qualities necessary for the job.

“And it can be kind of challenging sometimes to find that balance between ‘Am I being demeaning?,’ because you don’t want to make them feel like you’re talking down to them but you also need to make sure they understand you with their limited English,” she said.

The experience has given her a deeper understanding of refugees and immigrants and how nonprofits work.

“Whether I’m working with immigrants one day or refugees or even just international exchange students, I really want to continue this work where I can make someone feel welcome and comfortable in a new space, because I can only imagine how terrifying that must be,” Smith said.

In the fall, Smith plans to study abroad in Spain. After graduation, she hopes to teach for at least two years through Teach for America and receive a Fulbright to teach English overseas. Eventually, Smith said she would like to dive into international comparative education to work with school curricula.

“I feel like sometimes our schools are really good at taking those who want to succeed and allowing them to succeed, but we have a problem where sometimes we let the students who need a little more help just fall through the cracks,” she said, “and a lot of times, unfortunately, that is the minority students or the students who don’t have as much English proficiency, and so those are the groups I want to work with in an educational setting.”

Until then, Smith looks forward to completing her final two years of college, having had valuable and fun experiences at the IRC.

“It’s a group of people who really are adventurous and have a passion for what they’re doing, and they’re definitely just cool to be around, and they’re all so welcoming,” she said. “I spilled coffee all over myself on my first day, and I walked around all day with a white skirt that had a coffee stain on it, and everyone was just really cool about it.”

Watch the video on to get an inside look into a case management internship.

About this series: As part of our jobs reporting, Patch is profiling people with internships throughout Maryland, focusing on the issue of paid and unpaid positions. What do you think about paid and unpaid internships? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor’s Note: This story was written by a paid intern at Patch.