Understanding the range of benefits experienced by students participating in the Bank of Beirut internship program in Lebanon

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).

This is the second blog in the series about the Bank of Beirut (BoB) internship program. The first blog includes background information about the program, discussion of work-based learning in international contexts and specifics about the process of piloting such a program in an area that is considered inaccessible due to risk and funding factors. Having highlighted some of the challenges in the first blog, this blog will focus on the benefits of the program. These benefits, both intended and unintended, were not the same for different stakeholders involved in the program. For this reason, we will discuss the benefits across several blog posts, highlighting first the benefits experienced by students, then industry managers and finally the broader community they came into contact with, in which many of the unexpected benefits were experienced.

Students in the program experienced benefits across a range of domains. These include, but are not limited to, social connection, cultural learning, professional experience and charitable intervention. Under these broad categories we will describe some of the benefits students enjoyed by participating in the BoB internship program. Of course, the real value of the experience can’t be fully quantified or understood in these categories alone as it lies in the complex interplay between these different areas of experience and the unique combinations afforded in an immersive experience like this one. The whole experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts and there are intangible and unexpected benefits to all involved, some that only become clear long after the experience itself is over. What was clear from student reports pre- and post-internship was that experiences in all elements of the program were significantly beyond their expectations. We begin to describe some of these benefits here.  

Benefits of professional experience and training

One of the primary purposes of internship programs such as this is for students to gain professional experience and training. In the BoB internship program, students had the opportunity to undertake valuable work experience while receiving academic credit towards their degree. The literature on internship programs describes many of the known benefits to students as related to employment. Students who undertake internships have earlier and more frequent job offers and higher starting salaries as they have improved job searching skills and more networking opportunities. Internships provide learning opportunities for students to experience professional practice and activities related to the application of knowledge. They also allow students to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Regarding skills and competencies, the attributes most commonly listed as being enhanced are job skills and social skills.  Internships provide students with a better understanding of career paths and help students to develop more realistic expectations of professional life.

Benefits of international internships are as per national internships with additional components of improving competence in areas such as intercultural understanding, communication skills and work experience. The BoB internship program included formal and informal training opportunities on subjects relating to the students’ areas of study. Some examples of this included workplace induction at the Bank of Beirut on customer service, workplace behaviour, compliance and regulatory training as well as training on digital transformation fundamentals with a focus on communication and best practice in the banking world. Students also received a lecture by Miltos Michaelas, CEO of Bank of Sydney (BoS), on the banking and finance systems in Australia as compared to Lebanon and how BoS’s operations differ from its parent company, BoB. Many other training discussions took place, both formal and informal, planned and unplanned. These happened with the lead academic supervisor over lunch, on the bus to and from activities and as students debriefed after different experiences. 

Benefits of social connection and cultural learning

Students in the program were housed in dormitory-style student accommodation at the University of the Holy Spirit (USEK) alongside Lebanese students. This was an opportunity to have a lived experience of student life in Lebanon, including getting to know a diversity of other students and sharing important experiences, such as their commencement and graduation ceremonies, and other social and spiritual activities. This on-campus living arrangement gave the Australian students the opportunity to really get to know USEK students and gain a direct insight into student life in Lebanon. The benefits of this included a deeper sense of belonging as well as empathy and connection to the realities of life for young people in Lebanon. This was an important factor for connecting to the Lebanese students, who would be their peers in the internship program. 

The planned and organised social and cultural experiences were also vital elements of the internship program. Students had access to a range of different activities throughout the four weeks in Lebanon including events planned by the Bank of Beirut, the World Patriarchal Maronite Foundation for Integral Development (WPMF), the lead academic and the students themselves. The Bank of Beirut organised training activities for the students which provided opportunities to connect with the Lebanese interns working at the bank. The addition of outings and team building exercises deepened these interactions as groups could develop friendships and share their dreams and difficulties. Students went on long hikes together and learned about Lebanon’s past, present and hopes for the future through the eyes of its young people, discussing Lebanese culture, history and significant events such as the Civil War and the Armenian genocide. These students shared their love and pride for their country, their deep hunger for the future as well as the constraints they felt. The Australian students heard first-hand about the challenges faced by their Lebanese counterparts such as the high cost of university, limited job prospects, more intense working conditions, and having fewer opportunities to move freely for work and travel because of the restrictions on their Lebanese passport.    

Students had many further opportunities to experience Lebanese history, geography and culture with the activities arranged by WPMF and the lead academic. These included a red bus tour around Beirut, attendance at summer festivals and traditional dinners with music and dancing. Students’ understanding of Lebanon was further enriched by travelling to important monuments and places that are at the heart of Lebanon’s people and identity, including historical and religious places of Byblos, Aanaya to St Charbel’s Hermitage, Harissa, Jeita Grotto and Bkerke. 

Students reported that all elements of the experience exceeded their expectations, in the social, cultural and professional arenas. There were also a range of unplanned and unexpected benefits to students and the host community not yet discussed. The main unplanned outcome was in the area of social intervention wherein students had an opportunity to give back to the host community through charitable works. This warrants full discussion in a separate blog to come, as well as further discussions of the benefits of the BoB internship program to other stakeholders involved. 

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