By Samantha Schwartz
As the coronavirus spread throughout the country last March, most universities across the United States closed their campuses. In a span of just two weeks, students had to move home, complete their midterms and finals, adjust to remote classes, and revise their summer and fall plans that gradually fell victim to COVID-19-related cancellations. While mourning the losses of income, independence, certainty, college experiences, and even loved ones, students were suddenly receiving a crash course in flexibility.
Despite facing the myriad doors that had closed, the expansion of remote education and work presented several new opportunities, preserving some of the plans these students had made pre-pandemic. Although the spontaneity of in-person internships inevitably permits more networking, bonding, and exposure to the work environment, remote internships have managed to deliver a valuable experience nonetheless. For Samantha Schwartz and Harrison Schreiber—undergraduate college interns in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of International Labor Affairs (DRL/ILA)—virtual daily and weekly staff meetings provided insights into the office dynamic and exposure to the variety of projects underway.
The office director, deputy director, and all office members managed to humanize the internship experience by reminding interns that they had colleagues other than their desks and laptops, making sure to recreate the traditional internship experience for the remote interns who joined their office as best as possible.
“I always felt that a big part of the tradeoff for the great work [that] interns provide is the valuable experience they got from being in the office, joining meetings, and meeting people from throughout the Department [of State] and I worried that the remote experience would be a bum deal for the interns,” said ILA Deputy Director Thomas Whitney. “We have tried to ensure our interns were as involved as possible, and I hope the experience has been worthwhile.”
Interns joined virtual meetings, reported on webinars held halfway around the world, and individually met with each office team member and others throughout the interagency to better understand how the government works.
Nonetheless, the nature of interning from home was independent and therefore was a learning experience in self-advocacy. Because remote work strips the work environment of spontaneous interaction and passing conversation, interns had to make their own effort to reach out and demonstrate an interest in a colleague’s project and ask for help. Though some of these tasks might have been more natural in-person, the experiences of making their presence known and deciding which projects to seek out became invaluable additions to budding skill sets that will inevitably shape the way the interns will work in the future.
Last fall in DRL, one of the primary tasks for interns was contributing to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, a series of reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states. They are authored annually by the Department and submitted to Congress under a mandate provided by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974. The reports provide information on the state of international adherence to the individual, civil, political, and labor rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Interns in DRL/ILA contributed to Section 7 of the Human Rights Reports, which discusses workers’ rights by providing a detailed narrative on the state of collective bargaining and freedom of association, forced labor, child labor, discrimination, and working conditions in a given country or territory. The interns researched updates from the past year on laws and practices regarding human rights and worked alongside DRL/ILA staff to revise the previous year’s reports in accordance with the most recent guidelines on human rights reporting.
Each year, DRL collaborates with posts to edit each report to reflect the most accurate information. As drafts were traded back and forth between various offices and posts, interns received feedback directly from embassies on whether their additions aligned or conflicted with the knowledge on the ground. In this part of the editing process, interns honed their expertise on workers’ rights in various countries by learning from first-hand accounts about the limits of their information as well as the nature of ILA’s relationship with different posts. Schreiber noted that he found this to be the most educational part of the human rights reporting process and valued the opportunity to collaborate with other offices, departments, and posts.
However, the human rights reporting process was somewhat complicated by the nature of remote internships, as interns worked exclusively from their homes in various states. Because interns were not physically present in Department facilities, their personal computers became their only research source. Though they had access to some internal databases and were given ILA staff recommendations on specific reports that provide relevant insight, the research process was largely independent and heavily reliant on open-source information.
“At times, the evidence available online regarding human rights abuses was quite limited,” said Schwartz. “Especially when searching for objective, detailed accounts of events in countries with restricted press freedoms.”
However, both Schwartz and Schreiber agreed that the independence of the remote reporting experience offered an abundance of opportunities to learn how to hone their online research skills and discern reliable sources from anecdotal examples.
“Cables from the countries we were reporting on helped provide clues to focus my searches,” said Schreiber.
ILA staff found the interns’ research capacity useful as well.
“It has been wonderful to have someone in the office who is eager to learn and can research topics you need to understand but don’t have the time to explore,” said DRL/ILA Foreign Affairs Officer Paula Albertson. “This support helped us go beyond our day-to-day demands and keep up-to-date on cutting-edge issues in our field.”
The critical eye that interns developed throughout this research process is a valuable skill they will carry with them in future research endeavors.
“Samantha conducted independent research on how different legal regimes treat gig workers and gave a presentation to our office and other colleagues that really enhanced our understanding of this emerging labor challenge,” said DRL/ILA Director Steve Moody.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted not only the nature of the reporting process but also the content included in the reports. Interns were disheartened to see that certain COVID-19 protocols were politicized across the globe. From concealing data on infection rates and denying the presence of coronavirus within their borders to advising medical personnel to avoid using protective equipment that might raise patients’ concerns, several political leaders prioritized pride and power over citizens’ health. Furthermore, interns noted that, for example, in regions that were previously making progress, the closures of educational and community services endangered human rights, contributing to backsliding on eradicating child labor.
In every project, the interns learned that the collection and dissemination of information in a centralized and accessible format could shed light on longstanding issues and put pressure on the relevant leaders to change the status quo.
“As I move forward in my career,” said Schwartz, “knowing the extent to which informational availability enables human rights advocacy, I will continue to practice in-depth research and clear communication.”
Each aspires to careers in advancing human rights; Schwartz hopes to pursue a specialization in labor affairs, and Schreiber plans to explore his passion for international relations. Schwartz and Schreiber appreciated the flexibility, knowledge, and experience that ILA offered this past fall and valued that, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, they had the opportunity to learn from and connect with like-minded professionals.
Samantha Schwartz is an undergraduate at the University of California-Los Angeles and served as a full-time student intern for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor’s Office of International Labor Affairs during fall 2020.