Small steps and giant leaps in Lebanon: Challenges and rewards of WSU’s first international enterprise internship program in the Middle East region

This blog is part of a series sharing lessons and stories from Western Sydney University’s first enterprise internship program in Lebanon. This was an initiative between the Bank of Beirut (BoB), Western Sydney University (WSU) and the World Patriarchal Maronite Foundation for Integral Development (WPMF).

The Bank of Beirut (BoB) internship provided Australian university students in business and finance an opportunity to gain experience in a Lebanese professional workplace (the headquarters of an international bank) alongside interns from Lebanon. Students spent four weeks working full-time in-country with the Bank of Beirut, staying in student accommodation at a Lebanese university as well as engaging in a range of social and cultural experiences in professional, non-professional, formal and informal settings. There was an additional four weeks in Australia undertaking course work assessments with an estimated total commitment of twelve equivalent weeks when all training and learning opportunities are totalled across the immersive experience. 

The BoB international enterprise initiative internship pilot program in Lebanon is an important proof of concept that this kind of student mobility program can be coordinated and implemented with great success in a country that might be considered too risky or difficult. In this series, we share the process, discuss the benefits and challenges as well as lessons learnt in order to highlight the important role universities have to play in facilitating opportunities for cultural exchange, especially in areas that might otherwise not be considered accessible.

Work-based learning in an international context

Work-based learning programs, like the BoB enterprise internship initiative, give students the opportunity to extend their academic skills to a practical environment, bridging the gap between theory and practice. These programs allow participants to learn through experience in academic, professional, personal and social capacities. As the BoB internship takes place internationally, there are additional elements of cultural learning and exchange for students, host organisations and host communities. This international component means that the BoB internship blends a work-based learning experience with a student mobility and exchange experience. Global mobility programs including study tours, internships and exchanges are a cornerstone of Western Sydney University’s (WSU) strategy for supporting intercultural understanding and competence, both vital graduate attributes for success in the global economy. However, funding and risk factors mean that these programs rarely, if ever, extend into the Middle East region.

Access factors: Geography, risk, funding

Lebanon falls outside WSU’s traditional geographic focus areas for student mobility programs. This is partly due to concerns about the risks in the region which are reflected by the Federal Government’s listed Smart Traveler status for Lebanon: “Exercise a high degree of caution in Lebanon overall due to the unpredictable security situation, the threat of terrorist attack and ongoing political and sectarian tensions. The situation could deteriorate without warning.” However, the issue of access is also one of funding. The New Colombo Plan is the primary funding vehicle for student mobility: it is a Federal Government pipeline with a scope limited to programs in the Indo-Pacific region. Ease of access to funding pathways has a predictable impact on the international opportunities available to students. The Government’s strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific has resulted in a high concentration of global mobility opportunities in this region. In coordinating the pilot of the BoB internship program, one of the primary barriers to participation was the need for students to self-fund the costs of the program. These costs were also inflated by the higher airfares to this region and currency strength of the Australian dollar to the American dollar. More than any other factor, including perception of risk, it was funding concerns that most commonly led students to drop out of the program, both the actual costs associated and the opportunity cost of lost income. 

Process factors: Lead time, approvals, coordination

There were also process factors that impacted the program, the first being the comparatively short lead time of the pilot program: just three months from inception to execution, relative to typical leads of six months advance planning for most equivalent programs. This short window was further reduced by the amount of time taken to obtain all the necessary levels of approval required by the University. These approvals were required to be finalised before any marketing could even be initiated. The aforementioned perceptions of risk and difficulty, a lack of similar programs to use as proof of concept and other internal factors led to significant delays in receiving necessary approvals. These approvals were settled approximately a month prior to the internship start date, leaving a very short window to market and coordinate the program. This small lead time further compounded the issues associated with costs as the flights were more expensive and students had less time to save and plan. Another consequence was less time for some of the preparation, planning and coordination which might better support the management of certain challenges arising from socio-political factors in the region. One example of this would be the need for group travel coordination. Due to the short lead time, students were responsible for coordinating individual travel arrangements to Lebanon. Several students encountered a high level of scrutiny and suspicion about their reasons for travelling to the country, including having their bags checked thoroughly and being subject to extensive questioning on both the Australian and Lebanese sides of the trip. 

Nonetheless, many of these challenges are likely to be more pronounced in the pilot delivery of the program and can be managed and mitigated through applying lessons learnt in future iterations. Overall, the program was an overwhelming success, delivering a range of benefits to all involved. These benefits will be the subject of future blog posts in this series. 

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