Student placements as mutually beneficial partnerships

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by Simon Milligan, Imogen Mullet, Rose Murota, Mathew Rupanga and Rushil Ranchod

In March and April 2018, Imogen Mullett, an MSc student in International Development (2017-18), spent a month in Harare, Zimbabwe, on placement to the UK Department for International Development’s Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP). This conversational blog describes the lifecycle of the placement from the perspectives of those involved.

What is the LFSP?

Simon Milligan (Visiting Fellow, University of Bath and freelance consultant): the first phase of the LFSP, which ended in mid-2018, sought to improve food security and nutrition of smallholder farmers and rural communities in Zimbabwe. It did so by increasing agricultural productivity, promoting the production and consumption of nutritious foods, and improving access to markets. The market development (MD) component of the programme, which was managed by Palladium, sought to foster innovative ways of linking farmers’ groups with commercial markets.

I first raised the possibility of a short student placement with LFSP colleagues in September of 2017 and then with Bath a month or so later. The opportunity was advertised in the Centre for Development Studies and the Department of Social and Policy Studies in early 2018. We were looking for an advanced undergraduate (e.g. a year 3 student), a postgraduate student or a recent graduate who was highly regarded by faculty. We received 13 applications, interviewed two candidates and immediately took a shine to Imogen. She flew to Harare in March 2018, with the intention of spending three weeks with the team. Her stay with LFSP-MD was later extended to four weeks.

Why were you interested in the idea of a placement?

Rose Murota (Communications Officer, LFSP-MD): Effective communication often requires more skills and attributes than one person can offer. The programme was generating a lot of human impact stories but these needed to be documented. We were able to find local monitoring and evaluation interns who were interested in data collection but for a long time we were unable to find someone who could offer a new pair of eyes on the communications side and who would be willing to support me to improve and tweak articles and ultimately to do justice to the positive impact we saw on the ground.

SM: As Rose implies, I thought there was a great opportunity to create benefits for all concerned. I hoped that the placement would allow a motivated student to gain valuable professional experience in a meaningful role, ultimately improving his or her employability. For LFSP-MD, I hoped that the placement would allow us to address an unmet need to produce polished material about cross-cutting issues, and to develop or finalise a number of human interest stories.

Having interviewed Imogen with Rose I was confident that Imogen would fit in well and would be able to ‘hit the ground running’. As that might imply, one often looks for people who have a confident ‘can do’ attitude, coupled with humility and an open mindset. Ultimately, we wanted to find a team player – someone who was excited about the possibility of working alongside colleagues in Harare and who could take direction as required.

Rushil Ranchod (Teaching Fellow, University of Bath and person in charge of student placements): Placements are an important component of the undergraduate degree programme at Bath, and the LFSP-MD provided a great opportunity to extend the provision of a placement opportunity to our then postgraduate cohort and recent graduates. We recognised the immense value of the LFSP-MD placement in giving our students exposure to the dynamics of development in an African country and were sure that this opportunity would enhance the selected students’ academic learning in a supportive and professional environment, while simultaneously allowing them to develop new skills and capacities through guided ‘on-the-job’ training with experienced practitioners.

For the Department of Social and Policy Sciences and for the Centre for Development Studies, it also provided an opportunity for us to build new relationships in the sector and to engage our network of associates and fellows in interesting and productive ways. In addition to that, the LFSP-MD also came about at an opportune time for us: we were in the process of revamping our International Development Master’s degree programme and a new addition to our postgraduate offering is the possibility to do an optional placement at an organisation in the UK or internationally. So, the LFSP-MD provided a way in which we could test how we manage and administer placements in the 2018/19 academic year.

Imogen, what interested you about the opportunity?

Imogen Mullett: I think the fact that I found it so easy to write a two-page personal statement describing my motivations for applying says a lot about this opportunity. I think it is rare to find a job that excites you as much as the placement opportunity with LFSP-MD did. The geographical scope of the work really hit the spot. My undergraduate studies were political in nature and my work experience since had been focused on trade in Africa, so I have always been drawn towards the continent as a whole, particularly places with fascinating, and indeed turbulent, pasts. The chance to visit Zimbabwe at such an exciting time in history felt really unique.

In many ways, the well-defined placement deliverables made it equally appealing. As a linguist, the possibility of sharing impact stories in an engaging way was something I could do well. I was keen to do justice to the programme and its beneficiaries. I am not naturally confident in my own abilities but in this case I felt I had something to offer. On the other hand, the thematic scope offered me huge learning opportunities in a real interest area. Having worked on marine inspection services for food cargoes into areas of Africa affected by famine, food security as well as private sector and agricultural development are areas that strike a chord with me. I was unsure how my CV would be viewed in the industry so this kind of experience had the potential to make the difference between me being able to work in this specific field.

What did you do while you were with LFSP-MD?

IM: In short, I was tasked to polish/finalise impact stories covering different areas of LFSP-MD’s work. I also supported broader measures to analyse, write-up and share lessons from the programme. This involved planning events, liaising with different teams within the LFSP, and engaging with programme stakeholders, such as beneficiaries, during my field trip. However, in practice it was so much more than that. I felt like by having to rapidly understand the whole programme and communicate individuals’ and families’ experiences of LFSP support, I was absorbing so much information about market systems programmes, project management, and Zimbabweans’ experience of ‘development’, past and present.

Rose, as Imogen’s day-to-day supervisor, did the placement fulfil its objective?

RM: I have worked in a multicultural environment for some time so I was not worried about having someone from abroad coming in to assist. However, I was a little concerned if we would get along. The moment Imogen set foot in Zimbabwe the uncertainties were wiped out. We just clicked. In no time the ball was rolling, and articles were being churned out.

Our interactions on Skype in the weeks before Imogen arrived set the tone for the work and the working environment. When she arrived, Simon, Imogen and I set out clear workplans which we tried to adhere to – this was important given the amount of work that needed to be done. We would check our progress daily and made time to catch up and review the work in progress. With Imogen’s support, we improved the quality and timeliness of our communication outputs. From a very personal angle, it was great to have two pairs of eyes and to receive immediate feedback and input – basically, to share ideas with someone next to me. The skills brought in by Imogen were top notch and her knowledge of tech meant that she breathed new life into some things that felt a little stale.

What worked well during the placement?

Mathew Rupanga (Team Leader of the LFSP-MD in Harare): The thing that makes the biggest difference when bringing in an extra pair of hands to a well-established programme is the person’s ability to gel with the existing team. In the time I have spent working on and managing various international development programmes, I have seen a wide array of personalities. That being the case, I was slightly concerned if or how Imogen might find her feet in the team. However, I was mindful that this was the second time we had appointed an international intern, with the brilliant experience with the last intern [not from Bath] in the rear view mirror. That provided us with some reassurance, and Simon, a trusted colleague, was confident that in Imogen we had found someone who would work out well. And that proved to be the case.

Imogen possesses the personality profile that best suits working in teams. You would have been forgiven for thinking she had been a member of the team from inception as she soon gelled with the team and quickly wrapped her head around a very complicated programme which was being implemented by three international management organisations: FAO, Palladium and Coffey.

IM: Rose, Simon and Mathew’s support was great. On the one hand, I had a job to do and I was respected by the whole team and everyone with whom I came into contact with as an equal (and not an intern who can make a good cup of coffee). On the other, by working in communications I gained exposure to the programme and the way the international development industry works. Without sounding too clichéd, Rose’s readiness to share everything she possibly could about Zimbabwean culture, history and day-to-day life took the placement to another level. I felt at home in a way I had not experienced when travelling for work previously.

RM: Everything worked well. Besides the busy working environment, I made sure of showing Imogen the other side of Zimbabwe. She was very accommodating and appreciated the smallest things. Versatile and easy going. This made life working together a joy!

RR: It was the first time we’ve run such a programme and there’s a lot that we took away from it. First, I think the process was made much easier by the great brokering role Simon played in managing relationships between the LFSP-MP team and Bath. It allowed for a good measure of trust to be established and set the tone for how the placement developed. The professionalism, open lines of communication, selection process and the logistics of getting Imogen settled in Harare all went very smoothly given Simon’s leadership of the process. The fact that Imogen fitted in very well with the team in Harare also made managing the placement very easy.

Second, we realised that there is a real appetite for these kinds of opportunities, not just from students in International Development, but across the various departments in the university. Getting Imogen to showcase the opportunity through her writing was very useful; in future, I would like to build up even more of a profile around these kinds of opportunities. I think placement students are great ambassadors for the specific programme they’ve worked on, for the department and for the university, and it’s important that we profile them in interesting and engaging ways. Third, I think a more structured feedback process within the Department is also necessary. There was room for improvement, and in future I’d look to incorporate a more formalised process of feedback into the deliverables of the placement.

What might have been done differently/better?

RM: In an ideal world, the assignment would have been a little longer, and though we made a point of making a field trip to programme sites, it was only for a couple of days. With hindsight, the necessary clearance approvals with the authorities might have been done in advance. Besides that, it was a shame that Imogen left for the UK only a day or so before the public learning event in Harare that she had worked so hard to prepare for.

IM: I agree with Rose that the field trip was a little short and, to be honest, I could easily have stayed in the country for much longer, but there is very little more I could comment on in terms of improvements.

SM: While Imogen, Rose and I spoke regularly leading up to and during the placement, the discussions were often informal in nature. While this style was effective in this particular case, one shouldn’t under-estimate the time required for (and potential upside of) more formal coaching and/or mentorship during placements – a sometimes hidden ‘cost’ for some of those directly involved.

What does a successful placement look like – in less than 25 words?

RR: It should expose students to the practices (and ‘messiness’!) of development; provide them with (supervised) space to build their skills and sensitivities; and meet new and interesting people.

IM: The placement needs to enable the student to contribute in a meaningful way to the organization or programme they are part of.

MR: The organisation needs to have a real need for the role and this need should then be matched with a person in possession of the necessary skills set and the right ‘personality fit’.

And what can be done through the placement cycle to best ensure a successful outcome?

RR: It’s imperative that the purpose of the placement and the expectations on the candidate are made clear at the outset. This helps in developing selection criteria which can be agreed upon by the relevant parties. We were fortunate that Imogen ticked many of the boxes we were looking for in terms of competence, ability and possible impact, and her background and experience meant that she was able to ‘hit-the-ground-running’ in Harare.

Again, I think the role Simon played in brokering this opportunity was critical. Clear lines of communication, trust, regular and productive engagement and the necessary level of support to the candidate post-selection was critical. I think one improvement could be to better develop relations between the placement provider and the department. Building these relationships is important and there is much that can be learned and shared through these establishing new relationships and partnerships for all parties concerned.

IM: Everyone should be very clear about their expectations from the start, e.g. in terms of deliverables, expected support and personal motivations (e.g. to ‘grow’ the CV). Ultimately students apply for opportunities to prepare themselves for the workplace and organizations should offer these roles to fill a gap in their own teams. It is critical that expectations are married.

SM: Ironically, the one thing I hadn’t given due consideration to was the implicit purpose of an internship/ placement – a fundamental question that only came to mind when we received the 13 applications. Ultimately Rushil and I agreed that the placement should be ‘developmental’ in nature, i.e. that the experience should allow the successful candidate to ‘kick on’ – to advance – in some way. So, we were keen to identify a candidate who demonstrated the potential to maximize this opportunity to build their own skills, knowledge and experience, and to give them the necessary exposure that would improve their competitiveness after the placement.

Success is never guaranteed but a few things seemed to underpin this case: an open dialogue between LFSP-MD and Bath about needs and expectations, allowing for any areas of disagreement or misunderstanding to be addressed at an early stage; a robust appointment process that included an application letter (largely to gauge an applicant’s ability to structure and convey a compelling personal story) and a screening and interview process that involved all those directly concerned (i.e. SM and RM on behalf of LFSP-MD and RR for Bath), and; an investment in the person holding the placement, in the sense of trying to understand and speak to her motivations, career interests, and any concerns she might have. In an ideal world the placement would have coincided with a lengthy vacation period but utilization of the Easter period, while not ideal, meant that programme needs could be met without much encroachment on lectures, seminars, tutorials and preparation for upcoming exams.

Imogen, what are your plans for the next 12 months and to what extent did the placement help in that regard?

IM: I started working for an International Development consultancy firm in mid-2018 during which time I was working on my dissertation. [Imogen subsequently received a Distinction for her MSc]. I project manage monitoring and evaluation contracts, and work on business development for my division. I think the placement made a huge difference to me not being limited to entry level roles in the industry. This placement filled what felt to me like a gaping hole in my CV and contributed to me finding and having the confidence to apply for a role that makes the most of my experience in other industries. I am really grateful to the team for this.

Rushil, do you have a concluding thoughts from Bath’s perspective?

RR: The LFSP-MD was a great learning opportunity – for Imogen and for the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at Bath. These short-term opportunities bear considerable risks, especially for the placement providers. We are particularly grateful to Palladium – to Rose and Matthew – for being willing to take on a Bath student on a short-term basis and we are happy that there was a natural fit between Imogen and the Harare team so that she had a productive and impactful placement. Simon was instrumental in not only bringing the opportunity to our attention, but also lent his considerable expertise in supporting and driving the placement from start-to-end.

As the need for in-field, work-based learning becomes increasingly important in academic training in International Development, placement opportunities such as the LFSP-MD can expose students to the dynamic nature of development practice. Universities will look to foster more of these kinds of opportunities to enhance the scope of their academic offering to students as well as open new channels for engagement and impact.

Imogen did not receive a daily fee rate during the four week placement. However, her flight, visa and accommodation costs were met, and she received a daily living allowance while she was in Harare.

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