How the VSFS Internship is Advancing Higher Education Storytelling at USAID
What is the VSFS internship program?
In September 2020, USAID’s Center for Education partnered with the largest virtual internship program in the world, the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS), to develop internship opportunities supporting higher education’s role in development. With a range of internship options, becoming a VSFS intern with USAID is a great way to gain experience in the public sector while also developing necessary professional skills to start a career in international development. Expected to commit ten hours per week from September through May, virtual interns are able to make professional connections, gain valuable experience, and sometimes get course credit for work completed without needing to leave home or campus.
The Center for Education Higher Education VSFS internship is structured in two parts: one, a group project, and two, an individual project. This structure allows interns to gain experience publishing work both individually and collaboratively.
The Internship Assignment
In Fall 2020, I began a VSFS internship. As part of the three-person Higher Education intern team, which also included MBA student Carol Reyes and Master’s student Nina Kaur, we developed the Higher Education Storytelling Toolkit, a comprehensive digital storytelling resource designed to align with USAID’s Higher Education Program Framework.
Developed for Missions and Implementing Partners (IPs) to effectively capture and further the impact of higher education investments that span across regions, technical sectors, and activities, the 66-page toolkit provides specific recommendations and guidance around storytelling structure, interview strategies, photography and video guidelines, social media tips, and additional communications resources.
During the fall semester, our team met weekly with USAID advisors to provide and receive feedback on their work in-progress and to collaborate together on specific sections within the toolkit. Generating universal storytelling criteria was not our approach; for instance, we recognized that what would make an effective IP blog post would not necessarily have the same impact or reach the same audience as a USAID blog post. By considering specific contexts and audiences, our team was able to gather and examine open-access materials and knowledge management resources to create a centralized toolkit that addresses various digital storytelling approaches. We used Google Meet to collaborate and establish meaningful, productive discourse.
Piloting the Storytelling Toolkit
As a VSFS intern, I was tasked with both supporting the creation of the HE Storytelling Toolkit and piloting the final product with the USAID/Paraguay Mission, which included supporting and creating success stories for the Mission and interagency partners. During the pilot, I recognized how the Toolkit can be a foundational resource in the process of thoughtfully developing and sharing a success story.
The USAID/Paraguay Mission’s current higher education activities focus on promoting a culture of lawfulness in university settings. This theme spurred their initial interest in piloting the toolkit to share their recent successes. Given their mutual interest in creating stories to highlight project progress and impact, the USAID Center for Education and USAID/Paraguay worked with partners Instituto Desarrollo, which leads the Rule of Law and Culture of Integrity (ROLCI) activity, and Rutgers University-Camden, which leads the Higher Education Center for Ethics, Equity, and Transparency (HECEET), to create accessible, interesting stories targeting local and U.S.-based audiences.
After meeting at length and using the Higher Education Storytelling Toolkit as a guide, the teams were able to identify the target audience, select the desired storytelling platform, craft the story outline, and create a social media communication plan. In addition, USAID/Paraguay used the Toolkit’s resources to design a questionnaire to gather quote testimonials from activity participants. We used remote teaming tools, such as Google Slides, to review progress and suggest edits.
After conducting a successful pilot, the Toolkit has increased its resources in supporting digital storytelling that can educate the public about the value that USAID higher education programming provides. For those interested in sharing more compelling and strategic success stories, the Toolkit is a useful resource with tips and tricks to amplify USAID’s work in and with higher education, increase engagement with global audiences, and elevate the programming of USAID implementing partners.
Joining the Center for Education as a VSFS intern while attending a Master’s program has been a fantastic experience. Though much of my previous work has been in higher education administration and international development, finding an internship combining the two at an agency that I’ve always wanted to work at created the perfect fit. From engaging with USAID experts to gaining skills in knowledge management, remote collaboration, and digital storytelling, the entire experience has been valuable to my professional development. I would encourage anyone interested in supporting projects, developing resources, and gaining insight into working at USAID to apply as a VSFS intern.
For those interested in applying for VSFS opportunities in the upcoming academic year, please don’t forget to #applyinJuly at www.vsfs.state.gov!
About the Author: Ciara Parker is a 2020-2021 Virtual Student Federal Service Intern supporting Higher Education Storytelling efforts through USAID’s Center for Education. Ciara is a Masters student studying at University of Sussex.