Out of your comfort zone: What led me to an internship… I don’t like comfort zones

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There was once a time in my life that I felt I would never break into the degree professions.  I knew I would never be a high level executive, unless I started from the bottom and worked exceptionally hard.

I also knew that many of my dreams would be inaccessible without a degree.  Teaching English abroad, working in government, becoming a broadcaster; all these things are out of reach for someone without a degree, or at least trying to gain one.

One day, that changed when I made the decision to get back into school after a three-year break after graduating high school.  My first thought was to get through it, college I mean, as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I was aiming to graduate in three years, but that quickly changed after my first semester.  I wanted to juice the experience as much as I could.  So, in the spring of 2007, at 21 years of age, I started towards a degree in Communication with a minor in Political Science.

man conquering a summit

(© iStockphoto/ImagineGolf)

College is unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  It is alive, thriving and filled with people with a common set of goals.  One purpose of the “college experience” is to help a student evolve as a mature, responsible person. It advances a student’s talents and helps them discover new ones they may never have known they had.

It was in my second semester at the University of Texas at El Paso that I realized that rushing to get my degree would probably leave me where I was before I started.  The experience I attained during my three years of sales in the flooring industry as a contractor before college had prepared me, somewhat, for the “real” world.

However, there was something missing that I knew I could only get by attending college, “college buddies.”  In sales, your network is your goldmine and in college it was no different. College opened doors for me I never even thought of looking for. The chance to meet authors, renowned scholars, Nobel prize winners, politicians, and others was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Just being around success tends to breed success.  The connections we make in college are not like the ones we make in high school because during our teen years most people don’t have the direction they do in college.  Therefore, many take paths that take them places where they never thought they would go, not in high school anyway.

In college, a student’s mind is opened to a plethora of opportunities and experiences that push them into a thought process that could be considered “alien.”  The most important thing to remember is that, more often than not, it’s not what you know but whom you know that can get you through the “doors” of success.

In my fourth semester, I ran for Senator of the Student Government Association (SGA) at my university and won. I had achieved one of my dreams. I was going to work in government.  Getting elected was not the difficult part of this experience, though it pushed me to deal with every kind of student and administrator without preconceived notions.  It taught me, foremost, to listen, a talent I had never seen as valuable until that point.

This was the moment when I started to notice other people; I mean this in the sense that before college, I felt I knew enough to not have to listen to anyone. Now I know that listening and taking into account other people’s opinions is essential to success.

Also, I found a recipe for success that was almost infallible, networking.  Without networking skills, a student’s talents can go unnoticed.  Connecting with people was always my strong suit, but I realized I wasn’t a good listener, which in turn made me come off as arrogant.  It is something that I am glad I noticed when I did because I now work on fixing that every day of my life.

It was a good year: I served as a member of a city council committee for border relations, helped plan the construction of a new recreation center on campus, started up the recycling program at my university, and received recommendations for jobs from the Dean of Students, among other accomplishments.

After becoming involved at my university with student organizations and SGA for a year, I again wanted to take myself out of what had become my comfort zone.  This was when I realized another one of my dreams, spending some time abroad.

When I first applied to study abroad, I wanted to go to Spain because I am fluent in Spanish, but unfortunately the application deadline had passed.  That is when I looked at France and the opportunity to learn a new language.  I could have gone further out of my comfort zone, but I decided that since I already knew a little French, it was a good way to go.

I spent five months in a country with a fairly different culture and a limited ability to communicate.  My listening skills went from good to excellent because I couldn’t speak the language very well, the only thing I could do, at first, was listen and learn.

My time in France was priceless. It taught me to cope with difficult situations, but most importantly, it taught me to tread lightly.  That was something I had never learned to do.  I always wanted to make my presence known, and tended to do that from time to time in France, but nevertheless, I learned to keep quiet, think, and also, to be alone.  Not having a constant companion was difficult for me at the beginning, but I soon learned that the ability to be alone was invaluable.  Needless to say, I read a lot during my time there.

Many of my friends who studied abroad have had trouble settling into their new environments, both going to and returning from abroad. Although I did not experience “culture shock” in France because I was accustomed to traveling to Mexico with my parents when I was growing up, I did have some trouble getting back into the routine back home in El Paso.

Driving everywhere was one thing that, out of nowhere, became difficult.  I had enjoyed walking places in France and taking in my surroundings. After spending time in a country where you can see history in the architecture, everything at home felt newer and less romantic.

At school everything seemed too comfortable. I missed the sense of overcoming large obstacles and the small ones seemed bland.  One large obstacle I will never forget was taking care of myself when I got sick for about three-days.  Cooking, cleaning, getting around and keeping up with my studies was a very difficult thing to overcome.  Doing homework in English was very boring and almost felt elementary.  Work, as Europeans call homework, in another language was extremely difficult, yet enticing because my mind was working on a much higher level.

During that semester I applied for internship placement through the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) for the summer.  This organization helps Hispanic students find internships in the public and private sectors of industry with the goal of getting them a job after graduation.  I was passed over for summer but encouraged to apply for fall.

Sure enough, this fall I got the call and was offered an internship with the Forest Service at the Mendocino National Forest in Willows, California as a public affairs intern. I had visions of being in the forest and learning about forestry, but sadly I ran into difficulties with my supervisor.

A few months ago, HACU transferred me to the United States Department of Agriculture Hispanic-Serving Institutions Office (USDA-HSI) in Washington, D.C.  The experience here is exactly what I was looking for.

In D.C., I have found a vibrant and thriving workplace that allows me to use my creativity. I was given a few projects to do and have started to build an impressive portfolio.  Mainly I’m editing reports, interviewing personnel and interns and have started to create a newsletter for our office that could be sent to HSIs all over the country.  The newsletter is what I’m looking forward to the most. I enjoy big city life, and am taking on obstacles in a professional environment that I hadn’t been in before.

The internship experience is important to finding out who you are and what your place is, or is going to be, in this world. I have learned that I am not just looking for a job. I want to impact the world in a big way.  It’s a goal that seems far from reach sometimes, but it is what I feel I must do.

My advice to students who are considering doing an internship is to take yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s the best way to measure your worth and to test the skills that you have developed in college.  It will open doors.

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  1. international internships on

    Very true Alejandro. Sometimes we get too comfortable with where we are in life, either as a student, or when we have already started our careers. The good thing about being a student is that you have some time to get out of your comfort zone and test your abilities through an internship. When you finally start a career, it becomes really difficult to want to step out, especially from a job that is paying you a salary.

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