Politics and Policies of the EU: Internship Program in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My First Weeks in Brussels

I can still vividly remember my first impression of the city of Brussels. I was taking a cab from the airport, thoroughly exhausted from my trips from JFK - Heathrow - Brussels, and was sitting back as the cab driver navigated to the hotel. The buildings and parks we drove by were beautiful, but all I could think was "How on earth does he know where he's going?!? The streets have no signs!"

Yes, in Brussels most streets don't have clear and obvious signs.

It is so hard to imagine that we've been here for almost a month already; at certain times it feels like we've just arrived, and at other times it feels like we've been here forever. I honestly did not know what to expect from Brussels itself but I have been pleasantly surprised. One completely new experience for me was living with a host family. I was a little worried at first, but my host family is very friendly. They gave us (I'm living there with another student from the program) a lot of information we needed to adjust to life in/around Brussels. Most of us live outside the main center of the city, which really concerned this native New Yorker, but it's a nice, refreshing change of pace. I have no complaints, aside from the mild discomfort I get when my simple-carbohydrate-obsessed host dog stares at me as I eat breakfast every morning in the hopes that my clumsy self will drop the bag of bread or something.

Speaking of breakfast, speculoos. Speculoos. If you leave Brussels without trying speculoos in one of its myriad forms (spread, cookie, cake, ice cream, etc.), you have not really experienced all that Belgian cuisine has to offer.

The internship experience is the main component of this program, of course. The interview process, as Amy described in an earlier post, was pretty stressful. I only had four interviews but we had a very limited amount of time to do background research on all our organizations and figure out how to find our interview locations. Due to the aforementioned lack of street signs, the directions I got off Google weren't particularly useful to me and I always got lost. For instance, I had an interview near the Schuman metro, and the building I was going to was clearly mentioned on one of the exits, but since I didn't know that and got out of another exit, I spent 45 minutes wandering around looking for the Residential Palace. Smart.

The interview process itself was not dramatically different from the interview process back home, but it had its quirks. I interviewed at three NGOs and a think tank. I was not used to being offered coffee or tea at interviews, so I was a bit taken aback at first. The interviews were much less focused on exploring my own work experience and qualifications than they were focused on explaining the goals of each organization and their main projects.

My internship is with the International Disability and Development Consortium. It coordinates the efforts of twenty-three different NGOs that all work on disability and/or development, so it is exposing me to a different side of NGO operations that I was not previously familiar with. I am learning a lot about disability issues, inclusive development challenges, and especially the role that the EU plays in supporting development programs. Since my academic coursework has not focused on development, a lot that I learn here is very new to me, but I feel like I can draw parallels with a lot of the concepts that I am learning here and my own academic interests. Working here, I have learned broad lessons about NGO networks and coalitions, advocacy for marginalized populations, and the challenges of EU advocacy.

Another key aspect of this program is the policy workshop that we participated in this past weekend. I really learned a lot from our visits to the European Parliament, the guest speaker that spoke to us about foreign policy, and the discussions that we had in class. I definitely got a lot out of the workshop and feel confident that I can capably write the policy analysis paper due after the end of the program.

Last but not least, travel! We spent the first full weekend of the program traveling around Belgium, taking trips to Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, and various WWI cemeteries and memorials. With Jerry's encyclopedic knowledge of all things historical and Belgian, I really developed an understanding of the country we're spending seven weeks in!

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