23 July 2014: Yale-NUS students embark on mystery internships for Summer 2014

Written by Clare Isabel Ee | Image from CIPE 


In the summer of 2014, many Yale-NUS students participated in research projects, learning experiences, and internships around the globe. While most of them knew exactly where they were heading, four adventurous students decided to take a leap and head straight into the unknown by choosing to take up mystery internships.

Mystery internships are a black box; mystery interns are not told where they will be going or what kind of work they will be doing. Instead, they are given a sketch of the climate to pack for and the challenges they will face, and are urged to expect the unexpected. On or near the day of the departure, they are handed a plane ticket and told of their location by the Dean of International and Professional Experience, Anastasia Vrachnos.

“In the age of information overload, students don’t have the chance to practise making decisions with imperfect information or to gain experience in taking good risks. Mystery internships give students the opportunity to learn how to adapt quickly to new circumstances and to operate without a roadmap in complex and ambiguous circumstances—skills which are critical for leaders in the public or private sector,” said Dean Vrachnos, as she explained the rationale for such unorthodox summer opportunities.

As the summer break is coming to a close, the four students, Hoa Nguyen, Isa Ho, Laureen Hollgë, and Willie Khoo, are now firm supporters of mystery internships, advocating for the unique experiences it brought to each of them.

“When I first signed up for the mystery internship, I was definitely a little apprehensive, as I had no idea where I was going to end up,” confessed Isa, who worked at the Princeton office of Princeton in Asia, a nonprofit organisation located in New Jersey, USA, where she helped out with the strategic planning process as well as marketing and fundraising.

“On hindsight, I’m really glad I took the chance, as it’s been such a valuable learning and work experience!”

Isa (seated) with her colleagues from Princeton in Asia

For Hoa, who journeyed to Cambodia for the summer, she especially enjoyed the ‘mystery’ part of the internship. Hoa worked at Sarus, an organisation that works on building peace between Vietnam and Cambodia. While there, she assisted with the organisation’s social media strategy, designed workshops for participants, wrote grant proposals, and liaised with the Exchange Program participants.

“Because this was a mystery internship, I did not have a concrete role and at first this made me feel a bit uncomfortable. But this proved useful. The independence and trust I was given meant that I had to break out of my comfort zone, have faith in myself and just go for it!” she said.

“I always have a problem when people ask me what I do at Sarus. One day, I am in Phnom Penh, the next I am already in Can Gio,” she said. “I thought that the mystery ended when I found out where I was going to go, but that was not the case at all! I also got to befriend local Cambodians who participated in the Sarus Exchange Program, and really got to know the city in a way that no tourist or traveler can.”

Laureen was assigned to the neighbouring country of Laos, and was very surprised when Dean Vrachnos told her she would be working for a sports federation. She wondered if she would be out of her element, since she does not particularly enjoy sports.

After a few weeks, she was even more surprised to realise that being out of her element was one of the best parts of her mystery internship experience.

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Laureen (centre) with two children in Laos

“Learning to hand over the power of shaping my experience, and then adapting myself to the entirely new environment to do my work well, gives me confidence that I am better prepared for whatever awaits me in my mysterious future,” she shared. “I really got a chance to try out things I would otherwise never get to do. Organising a rugby championship or teaching children in one of the poorest districts was a great and challenging opportunity to learn what kind of work would fit me the most!”

Over in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Willie found himself assisting a social-minded and environmentally aware rock climbing organisation – and he has the blisters to prove it, after spending two months scaling the rock walls in his free time there.

Willie rock climbing in Chiang Mai, Thailand

“Besides learning all there is to know about rock climbing and caving, with plenty of hands-on experience (and blisters on hands), I was also involved in a variety of projects like organising a TEDx event, [assisting in] poisonous snake research, designing student programs with non-government organisations, creating flowcharts for accounting, gear distribution, stock-taking processes, and so on,” he said.

While there, Willie stayed with a local family and was immersed in the language, customs, and incredible hospitality of the country.

He added: “The mystery internship was more than just a work placement for me. It was a chance to start a life from scratch, and to scratch away and unearth an existence beyond the student identity I had always been regimented in.”