During the summer of 2021, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a virtual intern as part of USAC’s Global Perspectives Program. This program lasted 12 weeks from May 14 to Aug. 6. Throughout this internship, I was able to explore different cultures, navigate cultural differences, and analyze my place in an increasingly globalized society — from my own bedroom! I made friends, learned what life is like 8,836 miles away, and ultimately, this internship led to my current employment as a pharmacy technician.
The COVID-19 crisis made it impossible to travel abroad, but it created new opportunities, such as my internship, to explore the world virtually. I learned about the virtual internship through my college best friend, who was participating in a similar program to USAC’s Global Perspectives over the Spring 2021 semester. I thought it was a great idea, but I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The concept was as novel as the world it was born into. I had plans to apply for and attend pharmacy school, but the pandemic limited my pharmacy experience opportunities. That’s why I was drawn to USAC’s Virtual Internship, specifically the roles and responsibilities of the Health and Wellness internship. The skillsets USAC looked for such as research, preparing learning materials, campaign promotion, and developing promotional materials were all areas that I hoped to develop during the course of this internship. Now that it’s over, I strongly believe I have. Here’s my story of how I did it.
All About My Virtual Internship
My internship placement was at Khon Kaen University in Khon Kaen, Thailand. I worked for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences underneath my site supervisor Dr. Srisomporn Preeprame. After getting acquainted with my supervisor and the structure of my internship, I encountered the first obstacle: the 11-hour time zone difference. We met at night, but it was the morning for my supervisor. Our virtual meetings lasted from 9:30-10:30 p.m. Due to the time zone difference, I paid mindful attention to what time of day I sent emails — I didn’t want to wake anyone up when it was 4 a.m. their time, and 5 p.m. my time!
The Projects I Worked On
In the first few weeks of the internship, I completed my first project: a 17-page academic journal review article on the benefits of coffee for type 2 diabetes. I researched three compounds found in the average coffee bean and studied their effects on the human body, their metabolism, and their potential anti-diabetes benefits. I had a personal interest in this topic because I know many people who are affected by type 2 diabetes. In my research, I found that consuming filtered, decaffeinated, unsweetened “black” coffee has health benefits due to the abundance of antioxidants in the coffee beans.
This academic journal review article was the first time I had ever taken on a project of that scale. I don’t write 10+ page papers in one week very often. It was a little intimidating at first to write eight pages worth of subtopics in one week, but I was always up for a challenge. I wrote and edited the review article over four weeks. When I presented the finished product, my mentor discussed getting the paper published in a journal for continued education! I was very proud of my work.
I completed other projects for this internship as well. For example, I created several PowerPoint presentations for my internship. Presentations were the easiest way to communicate the information I had researched during the week to my supervisor. The first PowerPoint I made piggybacked on the paper that I wrote on the benefits of drinking black coffee for type 2 diabetes. The second PowerPoint presentation was a step-by-step guide on, “How to Become a Pharmacist in the United States” for Khon Kaen University to use for students interested in pursuing a career in pharmacy in America.
Around the time that I made this PowerPoint presentation, Thai students who were completing their portion of this internship in-person at the Khon Kaen University Pharmacy began to join the weekly online meeting video chats. It was great to interact with students who were my age and to learn what life was like as a pharmacist in Thailand from students who were currently going through pharmacy school. I was shown the layout of the Khon Kaen University pharmacy virtually by a Thai student, and although I wasn’t there in person, I truly felt involved. We began to collaborate on projects together. At the weekly meetings, I presented my research alongside one of my peers in Thailand. This was a great experience and I made a friend who I still correspond with!
While working with the students from Khon Kaen University, I created several other projects. I created another 10+ page academic journal manuscript on Vitamin D Deficiency in Thailand and created a PowerPoint and health advice poster to go with it. My final project for the internship was creating a health poster and PowerPoint presentation on, “The Importance of Vitamin A,” and sources of Vitamin A in Thailand. Sources of this important mineral in Thailand include papayas, mangos, spinach, morning glory flowers, red bell peppers, carrots, and other foods.
Learning Cultural Differences Between Thailand and the U.S.
While working on these projects, I developed many important skills. The most interesting thing I learned this summer was how to market health information to specific populations of people. For example, the health information that is pertinent and applicable for Americans to know is completely different than what is valuable information for Thais to know. Americans consume different foods, have different health and beauty standards, and our food is regulated in a different way. In America, our cereals and milk are fortified with vitamins and minerals. However, I learned that in Thailand it is not required for milk and grains to be fortified. Therefore, advising Thai people to drink milk would not be an effective way to increase their intake of vitamin D, in the way that it would increase vitamin D levels in Americans.
I also became hyper-aware of hand gestures such as the “thumbs-up” symbol after my virtual internship. Prior to this summer, I would often give a thumbs-up signal to indicate my approval of a project or idea. However, that changed when I learned that for some individuals in Thailand, the thumbs-up symbol is a rude gesture. I was horrified, since I had been giving my advisor a thumbs-up symbol to show approval for weeks, and no one told me! After that, I switched to miming clapping to indicate my agreement with their ideas.
This anecdotal story also crossed over into the media I created. Everything I put on the health poster design was researched to make ensure there wasn’t a negative connotation with the content. I researched colors and their meanings in Thailand to create the most aesthetically appealing content with the goal to help Thai pharmacists advise patients on what to do or consume to treat a vitamin D or vitamin A deficiency.
The final culture shock that I experienced while working on my virtual internship this summer was the differences in beauty standards between Thailand and the United States. This was most apparent when I shared my research on the chronic number of vitamin D deficiencies in Thailand. I advised that people go outside in the afternoons, not fully understanding just how hot it is in Thailand, or how high their UV index is.
The UV index is used to predict the expected risk of overexposure to the sun, and my hometown has an average UV index of six-eight in the summer. For comparison, Thailand’s UV index is between 11-12. That’s nearly double the amount of sun that I am used to, and I already think that summers are unbearable where I reside.
In addition to the heat, many people in Thailand choose not to go out into the sun to maintain fair skin. That surprised me. In America, people will travel upwards of hundreds of miles to flock to the beaches to get tanned for the summer. Or, Americans will buy products such as self-tanner to achieve a sun-kissed glow. In Thailand, it is the opposite.
Landing A Job As A Pharmacy Technician
While I was working on my internship over the summer, I applied for a job as a pharmacy technician at my local community pharmacy. I felt inspired by my online virtual internship and the confidence that working with the Thai pharmacists had given me. Around the closing of the internship was when I received the news that I had gotten the job. I started my training to work as a pharmacy technician two weeks before my internship ended. While working in the pharmacy, I noticed many similarities to what the students from Khon Kaen University shared. I was able to compare and contrast the pharmacy activities I did over this internship with the duties of my new job. This internship, although virtual, prepared me to work in my real-life job, hence the title, “A Tale of Two Pharmacies” that I chose for this post.
As the summer draws to a close, it’s been two weeks since my internship officially ended, and I have had time to reflect. I believe that my participation in USAC’s Virtual Internship changed my life for the better. I am incredibly grateful for having this opportunity. I made friends, received pharmacy experience that I was able to apply to my real-life situation, and the experience led to my current employment as a pharmacy technician. I would recommend this internship to everyone. COVID-19 has upset many plans and goals, but through USAC I was able to achieve a major milestone – interning abroad – and all the benefits that came with it.