“You’re not going to get a better internship than this program,”says Notre Dame sophomore Fritz Holzgrefe.
In a time when internships are scarce, and international opportunities are even scarcer, a statement like this one stands out.
Holzgrefe, one of the 128 students who participated in Notre Dame’s Virtual Global Professional Experience (vGPE) program, was reflecting on the unique nature of this opportunity.
The Virtual Global Professional Experience allows students to work with an international company or organization for six to seven weeks - all remotely, from their homes. Notre Dame International provided students with virtual internships with 78 companies and organizations in 10 international locations, including in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and East, South, and Southeast Asia.
Holzgrefe became involved with the program’s first iteration during last year’s extended winter break. With majors in both international economics and global affairs, he was excited to find an experience that combined several of his interests.
“I was really looking around at all the resources Notre Dame had, and this one particularly stuck out to me,” he says. “Any international experience I could get during COVID was going to be greatly appreciated.”
He first worked with Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem. Holzgrefe helped in a project to determine which parts of the Holocaust are over- or under-researched in European universities.
After enjoying his first vGPE experience, Holzgrefe applied for the program again for the summer. This time, he was paired with ACTED, a French humanitarian relief organization, to research climate change and disaster preparedness.
Between his first and second placements, Holzgrefe noticed some improvements in the program, including the class taken by each vGPE participant. In the class, students expand their knowledge about international business and discuss their experiences with students in different placements. The class shifted from weekly meetings to just four meetings over the course of the program, which he noted was much more manageable.
Over the course of the two sessions, students dove into their specific areas of interest, collectively reading over 25,000 pages in books that enhanced their knowledge about the industries in their international locations. They also wrote more than 1,400 pages in reflections about career discernment, global competencies, and intercultural learning.
The class was a standout feature for another vGPE student, Emily Perry, a sophomore planning on majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics. For Emily, the vGPE class created a sense of unity with students in both similar placements and completely different regions.
“I was actually surprised; a lot of us had really similar shared experiences,” she recalls.
Perry is no stranger to international learning. Originally from New York, she attended an international school in Singapore before returning to the U.S. for high school. Another one of her international experiences includes teaching English to Cambodians, a project which she continued for four years.
Perry used her previous international knowledge to help her with her placement at the Rawabi Foundation, a non-profit in Palestine that directs a wide range of programs to promote job creation. One of their focuses is city planning; the city of Rawabi is the first Palestinian city to be planned and built for Palestinians.
Perry acted as a marketing intern, primarily monitoring English media coverage about the Rawabi Foundation and any similar organizations. She also created action plans for Rawabi’s social media accounts, keeping track of trending topics and suggesting improvements.
Although this experience did not directly relate to her intended major, she was able to expand her international learning and explore new possibilities.
"What Rawabi is doing is actually really interesting to me, and I think I may have discovered a new interest through this program,” she says.
“Learning about the city planning and how they utilize architecture to create a livelihood for Palestinians, amidst all the conflict, is just extremely interesting to me. I think it blends together some of my prior interests in international relations, real estate, and architecture.”
Perry was not the only student who experienced breakthroughs in the program. Part of Holzgrefe’s research included finding cost-effective solutions to growing climate change concerns in Palestine.
“I would say that the number one breakthrough I had was that it’s most important to target the agricultural sector and source of water in terms of climate change,” he says.
Students worked with these global companies for about 12,000 combined hours of experiential learning, gaining expertise in areas ranging from career discernment to intercultural knowledge.
This intercultural knowledge shaped the experience for many students, leaving them with skills they will value in the workforce.
“I feel like my communication style now is much more appealing to a larger group of people,” Holzgrefe says. “You have to overcome language barriers, cultural barriers,” Perry adds. “And you learn about the obvious culture differences, but also the subconscious culture differences that affect people’s values and the way that they communicate.”
Going forward, both participants would recommend the vGPE to any students looking to expand their world knowledge.
“Try to think about your past and all of your previous international experiences; even if they’re virtual, even if they’re just in a class,”
Perry would advise prospective participants.
“And use that to build upon your experiences in vGPE.” Holzgrefe offered additional encouragement. “For all Notre Dame programs, just put yourself out there,” he says. “You have no idea what’s going to come out with it.”
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