Making moves in Mumbai: An Australian Intern's Story

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AIC Internships

Sabreen Zia is an Australian student studying at Murdoch University in Perth. in 2016, Zia interned abroad in Mumbai, India through the Academic Internship Council (AIC), the professional internship division of CIEE: The Council on International Educational Exchange. We caught up with Zia to hear how she benefited from this experience:

AIC: What first inspired you to do an internship through AIC with your home university, Murdoch?

Zia: I chose to intern in Mumbai through AIC because I wanted to gain practical experience in social work, especially in the field of poverty alleviation and slum rehabilitation. Growing up in suburban Australia, I had never seen extreme poverty or been in a slum before. I felt extremely disconnected from the social issues I was learning about at Murdoch. Interning in Mumbai would give me real-world experience, and would add a whole new perspective to my university studies.

AIC: What were you most excited for in Mumbai?

Zia: I knew interning in Mumbai would allow me the opportunity to explore a new city and immerse myself into Indian culture! I was really curious as to what living in Mumbai would be like. From speaking to friends and family, I had heard Mumbai is a fast- paced, cosmopolitan Indian city, with so much to offer- busy street markets, luxury malls, relaxed beaches and amazing food! Mumbai is also home to the most expensive piece of real estate in the world, the Antalia, and in stark contrast, also home to the largest slum in the world, Dharavi. When the opportunity to intern in Mumbai was advertised, I just knew I had to take it. I had to experience Mumbai for myself.

AIC: How did you find the pre-departure process to be, before leaving Australia? 

Zia: The best part of working with AIC was the ease and timeliness of communication with in-country support staff in Mumbai. I had a lot of questions before going to Mumbai about my placement organisation, safety concerns, and even minute details such as how will I get to my accommodation from the airport. The in-country support staff from AIC were able to answer all of these questions very promptly and it really put my mind at-ease before leaving Australia.

AIC: Were you ever nervous to go to Mumbai? What gave you the most comfort?

Zia: My background is Australian- Indian; I was born in India, but have lived outside of India my whole life. I have visited India a few times in my life (not Mumbai though), so I did have a rough idea of what to expect culturally. I can also speak Hindi (but my Australian accent definitely comes through!), and I can understand Hindi completely. All of these factors did help me to adjust living in Mumbai, but I still felt the culture shock when I arrived and lived in Mumbai. However, my nerves were quickly dissipated because everyone was so warm and welcoming. In my office, the workplace norm is for all colleagues to have lunch together; so everyday, from 12-1, the nine permanent staff and I would have lunch together. These lunch breaks provided a great opportunity to get to know everyone is an informal and relaxed setting. And to be perfectly honest, the conversations my work colleagues were having at SRS were no different to the conversations my work colleagues had in Perth! Conversation topics varied from family problems, money problems, pets, children, further studies, sports updates and politics! All that was different was the food we were eating! Really we are all having the same conversations all over the world...

AIC: Did you feel supported throughout your internship?

Zia: The dedication and commitment of the in-country staff in Mumbai in finding the right organisation for me was really reassuring. The support- staff asked me a lot of questions about my area of interest, and asked me a lot of questions about the kind of experience I was looking for from the internship (desktop research, fund-raising, field work etc.). Before arriving, we communicated over Skype. I found Skyping the support staff to be very beneficial because it made the whole process feel a lot more personal, and it’s always nice to put a voice or a face to a name! The support staff kept me regularly updated with organisations they have found for me, and also the pros and cons of each option. Once on site, it was really nice to be able to explore Mumbai with the staff who made me feel so welcome and prepared, and who had helped me organize my internship. 

AIC: How did your internship abroad help shape your goals for your professional career?

Zia: I would like to be an urban planner working in cities in the Asia- Pacific region. My time in Mumbai has really spurred my motivation to excel in this field. Large cities in the Asia- Pacific region, like Mumbai, face many urban planning issues, like slum rehabilitation, traffic congestion, water access, sanitation, and infrastructure development. I came face to face with all of these issues over my two months in Mumbai and I met so many slum dwellers who have to deal with the consequences of poor planning on a daily basis.

One family I met told me about how their slum community gets flooded during the monsoon season and as a result, all the sewage water and waste floods their home every year. Another young girl I spoke to told me that their slum got demolished by municipal authorities just two years ago because the land that their slum was on was going to be developed into a luxury apartment development.  Another slum community I visited told me that approximately 50 children die in their community every year crossing the road just outside their slum to go to school. Planning authorities have been slow to put in a pedestrian crossing, or provide a pedestrian bridge over the road for the kids to get to school safely.

I really hope that as a planner, I could be in a position to guide informed planning policy to address the needs of people living in informal settlements. Sustainable and inclusive urban planning is an area I have become increasingly passionate about since my time in Mumbai.

AIC: What kind of professional (and personal!) network did you build while on the program? 

Zia: I am still in touch with the HR manager, my mentor and the office assistant at SRS. We mostly stay in touch through Facebook and check-up on each other from time to time. I recently wished them happy Diwali (a Hindu festival). As I mentioned earlier, there are only nine staff at the SRS office, so we all got to know each other pretty well.

I also had the chance to meet Kate Moore and Tony Johnson, some of the executive leadership from AIC while I was in Mumbai. And this year, Kate invited me to speak at CIEE Annual Conference in Barcelona to present about my experience in Mumbai. It’s crazy to me that one decision to do an internship almost three years ago led me to speaking in Barcelona! I am truly grateful for all the connections I made over my time in Mumbai.  

AIC: What advice would you give to someone considering an academic internship?

Zia: Don’t underestimate yourself! If you’re considering an internship, you’re half-way there! You never really know what you are capable of until you challenge yourself. You may end up surprising yourself by how well you adapt to a new environment, and what new things you learn about yourself. Definitely organize yourself early and plan ahead. Think about your area of interest and which companies could provide you with the most valuable work experience. Plan in which year or which summer/winter break you could fit an internship in. And be sure to keep a note of important deadlines for application submissions - for scholarships too. If you don’t have any idea what you want to do, that’s also ok! Sometimes just being open-minded and having the right can-do attitude is the most important thing to have when considering an internship. 

And remember, if you are feeling nervous, always seek help from your friends and family, university exchange coordinator and alumni students.

AIC: Any last words about your experience in Mumbai? 

Zia: When the opportunity to intern in Mumbai was advertised, I just knew I had to take it. I had to experience Mumbai for myself. I was most excited to live in a different city independently (sorry Mum!). I was really excited to be away from home and experience a whole new different culture and work environment. I wanted to take this opportunity as a personal challenge for myself, and see if I am capable of adapting and living in a different city. From my previous visits to India, I knew it could be a sensory overload: the sights, the sounds, the smells- there’s a lot of people and the traffic is on a whole another level! I had such an amazing time in Mumbai and I am so glad I pushed myself to take this opportunity. I was catching the local train, doing my shopping from the street markets on Hill Road, eating local food from the street stalls, and I had mastered the fine art of hailing an auto-rickshaw! My Hindi was improving and I was able to converse with colleagues and people in the slum much more fluently.

I had to let my guard down and embrace Mumbai for what it is- a big, loud, bustling city! If you are lucky enough to experience Mumbai, you’ll quickly realize there really isn’t any place like it.

Zia is a double major in Environmental Management and Economics with a minor in International Aid at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. Since her time in Mumbai, Zia has taken further steps to develop her career as an urban planner. In 2017, she interned in Juala Lumpur as an urban planner. This year, Zia is enrolled in a full-time vacation student position at the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia, as an urban planner. Zia is enjoying developing her career, and attributes many professional successes to her time in Mumbai. You can learn more about internships in Mumbai with the Academic Internship Council here or by emailing us