Interview with Former Cape Town Intern, Jessie!
By Katie Arango
Jessie Baker Heim, who did her internship abroad almost 8 years ago with us in Cape Town, is currently an international education professional herself! In this interview, she reflects on her internship, and the effects her Cape Town trip has had on her life and career since then.
You interned with us in Cape Town way back in 2008. Tell us a bit about your internship.
In 2008, I was just out of college and eager to learn more about the world. It is hard to explain, but for some reason I just felt drawn to South Africa and I believed it was a place that I needed to experience. I found Connect-123 and they set me up with just what I needed at that point in my life as a photographer building my portfolio and as a young adult looking to grow as a global citizen. My position as a photojournalist in Cape Town changed my life. It was the tipping point for me that enabled me to develop a much stronger grasp on global awareness.
As a photojournalist I covered different news stories every day; some of those were beautiful and some of them were shocking. I remember being on location at a cheetah sanctuary in Stellenbosch standing next to cheetahs and photographing them for a Mercedes Benz story on transporting them safely away from farms. It fascinated me to be in the presence of such beautiful animals that deserve so much respect. I was face to face with them for the photos and I had a much greater sense of awe than I ever did of fear.
There were stories I photographed like that and then there were the stories that opened my eyes to the world, especially in education which is the field I am in currently. At the time that I was in Cape Town there was a great deal of racial violence happening within the local schools and townships that I frequently covered stories on. As an American who had never experienced anything like that it was profoundly eye opening to me in regards to the educational environment for many students living in South Africa and around the world. A safe education is a privilege and it should be available to everyone, but we are not at a point in society where that is the norm worldwide and Connect-123 enabled me to realize that.
The support I received from Connect-123 from day one was incredible. It was just enough to make me feel safe in offering an excellent support system for moving to a foreign country on my own, while also giving me enough freedom to really fully experience my time in South Africa.
Is photography still part of your life?
Photography is still a huge part of my life professionally and personally. Photography is my passion, it is something I truly love being able to do. Being a photographer isn’t a job to me, it is part of who I am. I remember being asked once in an interview if I saw the world differently as a photographer. I don’t know if that is the case, but I do take the time to soak in my surroundings and see the world in detail. I love to travel and part of that is because I love to be able to photograph different cultures in the ebb and flow of their day-to-day existence.
What are some of your favorite memories of your time in Cape Town?
I can honestly say I loved every moment of my time in Cape Town, even the emotionally challenging stories I covered had a tremendous impact on making me a more empathetic and aware individual. I also loved the moments where I got to really challenge myself professionally and personally, which happened every single day.
Outside of working I hiked a lot in Cape Town and I vividly remember the first time I climbed Lions Head Mountain with my camera bag weighing me down. At one moment as I was hanging off of a chain attached to the side of the mountain I really thought there was no way I was going to make that climb, but then I did it and I did it many more times after that. My favorite memories of Cape Town come together as one large memory of a turning point in my life where I knew I was capable of achieving anything I put my mind to and that still sticks with me daily.
What impact, if any, did your time abroad have on your life?
I have been fortunate to travel abroad extensively so far in my career, but I always say that Cape Town was my best experience. One of the many reasons Cape Town had such a huge impact on my life is because I learned so much so quickly and it made me realize how important it is to be in a job where I constantly have the ability to learn new things and take on new challenges. Additionally, my job as a photojournalist really ingrained the importance of being adaptable in a work environment. When you are photographing Celine Dion one day for a story and the next you are in the middle of a rowdy political protest in front of the courthouse you really have to learn to roll with whatever comes next and make the best of it. Cape Town made me feel incredibly alive as a young adult and it set the bar very high for the amount of passion and love I could have in a career.
Another huge takeaway from working in Cape Town for me was carrying a positive attitude throughout life. Out of all of the stories that some would call hopeless that I covered I never once met an individual that didn’t remain positive towards the hope of a better life. That resilience and positive attitude towards life is something I have a tremendous amount of respect for and it is something I try to incorporate into the way I live my own life.
Tell us about your current job and what you plan to do in the future.
In my current job in higher education I have the opportunity to work with international students interested in studying in the United States. The role you play in helping an international student pursue a degree in the United States is very important. It not only increases global awareness for international students, but it also plays a vital role in developing U.S. students into global citizens that may not have the opportunity to study abroad.
I think today’s working generation will often have many careers that aren’t necessarily a straight line in one field, which is the new normal. I am grateful for jobs like I had in Cape Town that let me tap into different types of careers that I am passionate about. Throughout my career thus far and in the future I will continue to be open to all types of opportunities because I know that there are many different fields I can find happiness in.
What do you like about working with people from around the world?
I love the moments where you realize how big and yet how small the world can be. When I reconnect with old international colleagues or run into a counselor whose student I have helped across the world it really brings everything full circle. I love that through effective communication and working together across cultural boundaries you really have the opportunity to make a difference globally.
Any advice for someone considering an international internship?
In my career thus far I have not had one position that my international background didn’t help me in. Even if you aren’t in an international field the learning opportunities available through international internships will stay with you for the rest of your life. When I went through Connect-123 it was a time in my life where I wanted to build my resume and also prove to myself that I could move to South Africa alone and work in a position that required a good amount of courage. Those types of what some might call risky decisions have consistently been some of the best decisions of my life.
It is true that life does not always get easier in allowing you to leave everything and travel, but because I pursued that avidly during and right after college I have a sense of peace knowing that I took advantage of that freedom in starting off my career. You will likely spend a good amount of your life working, which is why it is worth it to pursue these types of opportunities in order to set the groundwork on identifying what makes you happy. I often see people go straight into an 8-5 job when they graduate, which there is nothing wrong with that, but for me I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have been happy taking that path. Don’t be afraid to work long hours as a server, etc. to save money that allows you to travel, move somewhere and volunteer, get an international internship or do anything that allows you to fulfill the inner need to see the world because it does matter and it is worth following that calling. An international internship lets you fulfill that travel bug, grow as a person and often kick starts your career!