It was something as innocuous as an online search where I discovered the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience - or IAESTE (eye-ee-es-ta) - during my second year studying computer science at University College London.
I’d already considered a number of similar schemes, all offering undergrads the opportunity to work abroad for six to 12 weeks during the summer (sometimes a year) with full pay, but often only in business, language assistance, the tourism industry or with some other caveat or restriction.
STEM focused internships
IAESTE on the other hand, which is run by the British Council in the UK (the same folks who manage the well-known ERASMUS) is focused on science, technology and applied arts placements i.e. exactly the kind of work experience that is relevant to me.
IAESTE has been running for 65 years, operates in over 80 countries and organises more than 4,000 student internships every year at over 1,500 companies and institutions globally. Many of these organisations are leading universities and industrial firms.
My placement in Zurich
Fast forward a year, my plane is departing from Zurich airport and my eyes are glazed over thinking about the summer I’ve just had. Three months earlier I had started at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). My project concerned developing a new, low latency control framework for a new type of linear accelerator. It was my first exposure to working in a research group, to interdisciplinary collaboration and to the challenges posed by approaching a new research field. It introduced me to a new programming language in a field that I knew little about.
I had the opportunity to compare the British academic system with the Swiss one, to converse with local PhD students about their motivation and ambitions and to make friends with students from around the world.
The challenges of living - and working - abroad
One of the biggest challenges of living abroad is the isolation one can face upon arrival. I was certainly disheartened during my first couple of days and I experienced a culture shock, but it was a challenge that IAESTE helped me to overcome. The Swiss and UK IAESTE officers were on hand for any occurrence and every other international trainee in Zurich was only alone for as long as it took to discover one another.
In each major IAESTE city there is a Local Committee (LC) made up of local students, typically IAESTE alumni, and Zurich was no different. Every Tuesday the Zurich LC organised a social event for the 40 international trainees to mingle and meet with local students.
Each weekend involved a Swiss-inspired activity, ranging from a treasure hunt in the capital, cycling through the alpine landscape or white water rafting. The weather never stopped us from attending the many festivals which Zurich is famous for: we listened to everything from live jazz to punk-rock beats, learned how to dance to the rhythm of salsa and stood silently before the beauty of the moonlit Matterhorn.
How I’ve grown
The person that landed back in London was not the same one who had left twelve weeks earlier. This person had a newfound understanding of other cultures, a clearer idea of the path they wanted their academic career to take and the knowledge that IAESTE could offer even more.
My experience was unique, yet not singular. I discovered that a group of like-minded IAESTE alumni were setting up an LC in my very own city. The group shared the same IAESTE spirit and I’ve since found myself carried away by the ambitious project of setting up the group in London, expanding it in size and endeavouring to instil the same IAESTE passion in UK students and those international trainees lucky enough to land on our shores.
Applying for a paid STEM internship with IAESTE
If you’re interested in experiencing a new culture and applying yourself, then look out for us at your next careers fair or on our website.
During the autumn term we allow students to register their interest on our website before the deadline. We contact those who have registered with a list of available overseas job placements, and applicants submit a complete, formal application including CV and references.
Finally, those who are lucky enough to be accepted onto the program are helped with any visa, travel and accommodation issues and given pre-departure training prior to their placements.