Lehigh senior combines professional experience with cultural immersion through internship in Armenia

When Brianna Banful chose the country where she would participate in the Iacocca International Internship Program, her first choice was surprising.

After she ranked her top three locations, her number one pick was Armenia, a former Soviet Republic that is now independent. She placed the West Asian country ahead of Italy and London -- places that might be more typical choices for a student who had never traveled outside the United States. Banful, a native of Brooklyn, New York, said it was an easy choice.

“I felt like this program and this internship were best in line with my major,” said Banful, a senior studying journalism. She interned for eight weeks as a content writer with Nor Luyce, a nonprofit organization founded by Lehigh University alumna and former Fulbright Fellow Shogher Mikaelyan with headquarters in Gyumri, Armenia. Nor Luyce is a mentoring program that aims to improve the lives of young girls.

Banful applied for the internship program, which is fully funded for participants, at the urging of her sister, Jasmine Banful ’20, who went to Estonia as an Iacocca Intern. “She told me, ‘Bri, you have to do this,’ ” Banful recalled.

“The Iacocca International Internship Program strives to enhance career readiness and develop intercultural competencies,” said Carol Strange, Director of International Internships at Lehigh's Office of International Affairs. “Brianna received hands-on work experience, enabling her take the skills she learned in the classroom and apply them in a professional setting abroad.”

Banful’s location choice allowed her to fulfill the Iacocca program’s goal of combining professional experience with cultural immersion. While she was there, she chose to live with a host family. Her host mother, Karine Harutyunyan, also works at Nor Luyce, and the two traveled to the office together every day. “It really made me feel like an Armenian,” Banful said of host family living. “I was waking up the same time that they do, I was eating what they ate. I was watching my host sibling and watching the way that they raised her. These are experiences, these are moments, that I will definitely carry with me for life.”

Banful wrote copy in English for the organization’s website. Because she doesn’t speak Armenian, she had to navigate a language barrier to do her work. By the end of her time there, she came to view it as an exercise in problem solving and asking the right questions. “If you want to do something to the best of your ability and you’re not sure how to do it, there’s nothing wrong with looking for guidance,” she said.

Because Banful is used to having access to a variety of cuisines at home in New York, food was sometimes a challenge during her stay. “At home, if I want Mexican, I can get Mexican. If I want Chinese, I can get Chinese. In Armenia, most of the food is Armenian,” she said.

The slower pace of work life that she found in Armenia was a welcome change from the United States. “I feel like it gave me time to sit back and reflect on what I was doing. It allowed me to really make a deeper connection with the people I was working with,” Banful said. “The people were definitely the best part of the entire experience.”

Banful said she formed unforgettable friendships with people from all over the world who were working in Armenia. She met young adults from France, Russia and other countries who are of Armenian descent working in the Birthright Armenia internship program. “I had a real community there,” Banful said.

With that circle of friends, she took advantage of seeing the country’s famous sights, including the Tatev Monastery and a suspension bridge connecting the old and new villages of Khndzoresk. With a fear of heights, crossing the swaying bridge was unnerving, but she persevered. “I told myself, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ ” she recalls. “I should take advantage of everything that’s coming my way.”

Banful has advice for students pondering the International Internship experience. “Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. I feel like you grow the most in uncomfortable situations…,” she said. What she gained from the experience outweighs everything else.

“This isn’t just about learning new skills professionally. This is about learning who you are and learning how you will react to these situations….I think the great thing about the Iacocca International Internship Program is you’re pushing yourself to a level you’ve never been at before.”