In the summer of 2019, Elena Tothazan (AB ’19) received the internship opportunity of a lifetime – one she never imagined possible. Originally from Romania, Elena immigrated to the United States in 2010 with her family. “My mother’s relatives came to the US both during the communist regime and after the revolution in 1989,” she reflected. “It took 10 years for our papers to be processed, but we were eventually able to follow our family to the US to pursue the American Dream.” As a young child, Elena learned English by watching Dora the Explorer and other American cartoons on VHS tape, which one might say was her first foray into the study of global affairs.

As a student at the University of Georgia, Elena majored in International Affairs, additionally earning a minor in French and a certificate in Global Studies. Towards the end of her senior year, Elena began the search for an internship that would open doors for her in the realms of human rights studies, international policy, or immigration law. She was offered a position with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – Human Rights Initiative Department, which is located in Washington, DC. “Without the help of the Experiential Learning Internship Program, I would not have been able to intern in DC,” she explained. “Opportunities like these are amazing because you can afford to live while growing both personally and professionally.”

Elena was one of the first students to participate in the School of Public and International Affairs’ Experiential Learning Internship Program (ELIP), which was established in 2019. ELIP provides paid internship opportunities for undergraduate students in Georgia and Washington, DC on a competitive basis for those with a demonstrated interest in a career in public affairs, public policy, or government.

As an intern at CSIS, Elena conducted research on forced labor in reeducation camps in China. The project was initially rather small in scope, but the further Elena dug into her research, the more data she found. “It was fascinating to be on the call with former detainees from the camps I was researching,” she commented. “It was humbling and made the issues a lot more tangible when hearing a real person’s voice. Even though my work was only a small part of the project, it made a large impact.” Ultimately, her research contributed to a Human Rights Initiative report and Congressional testimony to condemn China’s human rights violations.

Her time in DC with CSIS solidified her goals and set her on her current career path. “My experience in DC played a big role in getting the position I am in now. It provided an opportunity for me to network and meet new people,” she said.  “It shaped my future trajectory professionally and personally by giving me the chance to work in human rights – a field I’m very passionate about.”

In her current role as an AmeriCorps member with the International Rescue Committee, she acts as the Adult Education Associate where she teaches English to the refugee and immigrant population in Atlanta, Georgia. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Elena’s position has pivoted to a fully remote model, which allows her to continue her lessons online via Zoom. She recently decided to serve with AmeriCorps for a second year and continue her role through the summer of 2021.

In the future, Elena hopes to use her contacts to return to DC for more experience in nonprofits or think tanks in order to explore different policy areas to refine her interests before ultimately attending graduate school. For other students interested in pursuing internships that might otherwise be out of reach, Elena urges them to apply early and take advantage of SPIA’s Experiential Learning Internship Program. “This experience was life changing because DC is a city I always wanted to go to, but I come from a low-income family. I wouldn’t have been able to accept this internship and move to DC without the financial support of this program.”

To support students pursuing life-changing opportunities give to the SPIA Experiential Learning Program.