Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Karina Cheah reflects on unexpectedly finding a mentor in her internship supervisor that was build on openness and support. This is part of the graduate voices series, which features IB alumni voices from all over the world.
The summer of 2019 was the first summer I hadn’t worked at the local stable as a horseback-riding instructor. I sometimes still went there to ride in the afternoons and decompress, but I wanted a fresh work-experience and a change of pace, so I settled into the role as a development department intern at The Salvation Army National Capital Area Command (NCAC), just outside Georgetown in Washington, DC. It was the first office experience I’ve ever had, and while I had visited my mom’s workplace a couple of times—although, of course, my mother and I were working in two very different offices and held very different roles—I hadn’t quite grasped the concept of what office work entails until this summer was over.
A unique aspect of my position is that I had multiple supervisors, dividing my time between the lovely Mary Beth, our grants and research manager, and Angela, our intern supervisor and the volunteer and donation drive manager. I spent a lot of time with both of them and came away with excellent skills and experiences as well as two incredibly valuable connections to wonderful women, both professional and personal. With that, I am choosing to focus on Angela here, because she played a two-pronged role in my experience that I wasn’t expecting when I arrived on my first day.
Angela is wildly busy because she is the contact person for prospective volunteers and for the extensive fundraising and service projects such as the Angel Tree Program, a holiday assistance program providing gifts for children for underprivileged families around the DC area. She is always eager to help, easy to work with and is just as chipper in person as she sounds on the phone.
Because Angela is so busy, she always had something for me to do. The main projects I helped her with over the summer were management and setup of the volunteer database, record-keeping and organization of The Salvation Army’s Christmas in July outreach for the Angel Tree Program, which included reaching out to sponsors in the lead-up to our Christmas in July event. On this day registration for Angel Tree sponsorship officially opened up and almost everyone at the offices was involved in sponsor outreach. The Salvation Army does a lot of great social service work—much more than the average person (myself included, before this internship) might know about!
“I didn’t quite conclude that she’d become a mentor to me until the end of the summer. It happened in a very organic and gradual way that I didn’t intend or plan for.”
At the NCAC, interpersonal communication is highly prioritized, particularly with the interns. Interns sit together, with multiple cubicles in an office and our respective supervisors usually walk in to give us our assignments but they also ask us how we were doing and, if it’s Friday, about any exciting plans for the weekend. I could count on seeing them walk in and out of our office at least twice a day. Angela was particularly vigilant about stopping in at the cubicles.
“Hey, just checking in,” she would say to each of us. Move from cubicle to cubicle, always asking us the same questions, in the mornings and after lunch. “How are you doing? What do you have for today?”
As the intern supervisor, it was part of her job to check in on us, but I always felt that she did so out of genuine interest, especially as she was always curious about what we were up to outside of the office. When I met Angela on my first day, the first thing she did, within seconds of getting in the elevator, was give me an update about the cold she was fighting off since I first interviewed with her and how the coughing was throwing out her back muscles but she was doing her best to get rid of it. In that one remark, I could immediately feel the warmth and connection that bubbled in her voice. We were going to get along, but to what extent, I would not learn until the end of the summer.
Angela has managed to strike a great balance between professionalism and approachability, which was the norm around the NCAC. As with most internships, we interns were also encouraged to stop and check in with our supervisors if we needed anything at all, whether it was another assignment or advice on how to handle something work-related that we were struggling to grasp, and Angela always made us feel welcome in her office, assuring us that she wanted us to ask questions because it meant we wanted to do our jobs correctly, and she was always happy to help.
“As you develop professional relationships, ask questions and begin to grow your network, one will eventually find you.”
Because I was working with Angela, I was constantly in and out of her office, asking questions about the exact formatting of spreadsheets or what my limits were within our volunteer database. She always said, “Good question!” and was always patient and happy to answer, even when I would walk in and out three times in ten minutes. She was also always willing to sit down and walk me through a process, whether it was related to the setup of a new system or to help me get over my aversion to making phone calls. She dedicated a good forty minutes of one of her packed work days to sit down with me, demonstrate how to make a phone call asking for Angel Tree sponsorship and then listen into my first call and offer feedback and encouragement.
For me, when any problem cropped up at work, it was natural to gravitate to Angela and explain to her what at work was affecting me. The culture of the NCAC and Angela’s own inviting personality made it easy for her to step in and offer me advice. It’s a place that encourages personal interactions. I didn’t intend to seek her out as my mentor; instead, she stepped into the role quite naturally. The culture of our workplace and Angela’s own open friendliness made it easy for me to knock on her door and ask her to talk when I needed help working through any problem.
I learned quite a few things this summer. Not all of them are grand realizations; some of them are more mundane and technical, like how to get a volunteer management system up and running. One of the things that lands more in the “grand realization” category is that professional and personal life are startlingly intertwined. I experienced a loss a little over a year ago that weighs more heavily on me during the summer than it does during the rest of the year. I know how to juggle work after having come out of the Diploma Programme (DP) and having completed over half my college career, but I am someone whose mental health and personal life strongly affect focus and performance. Having someone like Angela around that I could talk to when I was struggling was a comfort, because it was helpful to hear the insights of someone not connected to the situation and had the ability to ease the load a little bit in order to try and stay as focused as possible. But I wasn’t seeking her out in that I was thinking, “I want Angela as my mentor.” In fact, I didn’t quite conclude that she’d become a mentor to me until the end of the summer. It happened in a very organic and gradual way that I didn’t intend or plan for. I already knew she was a great professional mentor and finding out that she was also a great personal mentor was not a surprise.
Here’s the last thing I came to realize once my internship ended: in a workplace where there’s a culture of interpersonal connection and where coworkers are encouraged to talk to one another, there’s no need to actively seek out a mentor. As you develop professional relationships, ask questions, and begin to grow your network, one will eventually find you.
Karina Cheah is a graduate of the Washington International School in Washington, DC. She currently is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Affairs at Colgate University in New York. In her spare time, Karina enjoys spending some time at the sables and horseback riding.
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