For the last three months a German film student has been living in the basement of my Chicago home. David is a foreign exchange student, but he is also an intern who is assisting my partner and me with completing our latest documentary.
David is with us twenty-four hours a day. In the last two months he has gone on production trips, logged hours of videotape and assisted us with editing. David has also shoveled our snow, carried our luggage and helped us drive our Volkswagen to Canada to visit Hot Docs--one of the world’s largest documentary film festivals and markets.
I have had student interns work with me before, but never one who has lived in my basement. Actually, that’s not quite true. I did allow one other former student to live in my basement while I traveled to Kenya, but I was gone for most of the time. The difference this time is striking. With David, I am in touch with how overseeing an intern, particularly one who lives in your basement, is an experience that can carry with it some parental implications.
Increasingly, universities are offering internships, civic engagement and study abroad experiences because working in environments beyond campus assists students with integrating into a global society. College facilitates young people with leaving the familiar comforts of home for the larger world. That world includes hunger, poverty, crime and disease, as well as the people and institutions who work to lessen the impact of these hardships and document this history. Exposing students to experiences that reach beyond the classroom has become a part of many university missions and is well documented for improving undergraduate outcomes. In order for these initiatives to be successful, though, professors don’t just need to participate in them, they need to believe in them.
In my Chicago home David is removed from his familiar culture, but, fortunately, he is from Berlin, so he can handle ‘big city’ advice about unsafe neighborhoods--advice that I feel compelled to offer, even though he is 23. David is helpful and generous with cleaning and shopping, but he is still learning to cook recipes on his own. (He seems to thrive on bagels.) When he lost the cell phone I’d loaned him out of his pocket, he needed some help with figuring out how to find it, but together we found it.
At Hot Docs David was overjoyed with his free pass to over six films per day, and with the international audience in attendance. We demonstrated to him how to ‘network’ in this professional world, and how to ‘negotiate’ our way in to events for which we did not have free passes. (There were times when our persuasive skills were not successful.) Following the film festival, David socialized in Detroit with young college students who showed him how some Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo by drinking tequila excessively — a tradition that, not surprisingly, David did not have in Europe.
At a certain point in David’s internship, I realized how much he reminds me of my 15-year old son, Nick — smart, but still appreciative of some well-timed guidance (“Time to eat food!”). Our discussions about art, our production meetings, and, particularly, all of the shared meals with our intern seem much closer to the experience of family life than to the classroom. This realization scared me a bit. In my mind, I had not signed up for additional parenting duties when my partner agreed to host and train this exchange student. I was not prepared to parent in two houses. Eventually, though, I realized that I was the one with the ‘parenting’ issues, and it made me wonder how often these emotions bleed over into my teaching duties. No wonder many professors hesitate to take on interns — the psychological responsibilities can be daunting.
Interns provide their sponsors with labor that many of us could not pay for otherwise. David is helping us to finish our film, while also learning about producing media, completing fieldwork, networking, and problems with being disorganized or not having maps when you need them. Perhaps most importantly, David is providing us with a young person’s feedback -- feedback that comes from a different cultural context. If I want an international audience for my work, particularly an audience that includes college students, then David’s reactions are invaluable.
Handling the mixed emotions of parental responsibility is truly a small price to pay for what a good intern offers.