International intern journeys – Experiences from research and personal perspectives

Two service design interns, Radhika Motani and Sabine Maselkowski, conducted a study to understand the challenges and barriers that supervisors face in hiring and integrating international interns, and, also, the experiences of interns. Now, at the end of their internship, we wanted to ask about their own experiences.
Radhika Motani (left) and Sabine Maselkowski studied international interns' experiences at the City of Helsinki. Photo: Meri Koskinen
Radhika Motani (left) and Sabine Maselkowski studied international interns' experiences at the City of Helsinki. Photo: Meri Koskinen

Helsinki is becoming more international, and the City's strategy includes a goal of creating an international city of equality. This is also reflected in our personnel. The proportion of staff whose native language is something other than Finnish or Swedish is around 10%, and this number is on the rise.

We hired two service design interns, Sabine Maselkowski and Radhika Motani, to City Executive Office's HR department for the end of 2023 to conduct a study on the challenges and barriers that supervisors face in hiring and integrating international interns, and understanding the experiences of interns. The project aimed to explore both the interns' experiences and those of their supervisors and teams. The goal was to find out what type of things support or, on the other hand, prevent increasing international internship opportunities.

Now, at the end of Sabine's and Radhika's internship, we wanted to ask about their own experiences.

How would you introduce yourself?

Sabine: I am Sabine. I was a Service Design intern at the City and am finishing my Master studies in Service Innovation and Design at Laurea. I am originally from Germany. I have a background in project management in executive education as well as in customer experience. My favourite past work revolved around providing labour market access to people from abroad.

Radhika: I am Radhika Motani. I am pursuing a Master's Degree at Aalto University in a program called Creative Sustainability. It is a multidisciplinary program that brings together design, business and engineering. My work as a designer and researcher comes from my interest in combining design in policy and the public sector.  My experiences and understanding around various dimensions of sustainability has pushed me to challenge ways in which sustainability can be used as a lens through my own design practices and collaborative experiences that we share. Some of my recent collaborations involve projects in designing and evaluating citizen participation processes within environmental governance, low-carbon food consumption and participatory design.

What made you apply for the position?

Sabine: I wanted to experience working for the public sector, I think it is a very grounding idea to work in connection with infrastructure and services that benefit so many people. 

More than that, I was attracted by the theme of internationalisation and diversity.  I have previously worked on related projects. Of course, I am personally interested in seeing more work opportunities in English here, but I believe that there is a lot of underused potential.

Radhika: I have always been very passionate about combining design methodologies and design thinking to approach challenges in the public sector. My prior experiences in utilizing a service design approach in the public sector allowed me to reflect on the value of design not only as a separate domain but also in finding ways to combine it within existing organizational structures and roles. This internship was an exciting opportunity to collaborate with the HR department. Additionally, the topic area of promoting internationalization and diversity in the organization is something I could add value to not only as a researcher but also through my personal experiences. All of these aspects presented a very exciting opportunity.

What have you learned during your internship?

Sabine: The machine that we call the City is massive. It is quite impressive to realise, I think. The internship also gave me a new perspective to internationalisation. I used to work more with the internationals wanting to find employment, but now it was an employer-internal view. The internship meant I could get a more operational understanding but also learn more about what such a possible change means to people and their daily work. In that respect, this project is a lot more complex than the ones I worked on before.

Radhika: Throughout the internship, I had the pleasure of interacting with different people across the organisation who were thrilled to share their perspectives and experiences. My biggest source of learning and inspiration has come from different people. Working on this project emphasized the power of collaboration and supporting each other in different kinds of challenges.  Hands-on experience from this project made it even more evident that there will always be challenges but I learnt to approach existing challenges from a lens that can help me convert those as opportunities.

What surprised you?

Sabine: I feel the variety of work contexts was surprising to me. Very much related to our project, some units and teams are at a very different stage when it comes to working in a more international environment. There is a lot of knowledge, positive experiences, best practices and such to benefit from but the internal exchange is something that needs to be fostered . I was also surprised by how positively the opportunity to practise English was received.

Radhika: The extent of work that is done by different teams across the organisations, and how massive the organisation is. From the outside it was difficult to understand the complexities that come with the size of the organisation. It was also surprising to me that there were only a handful of international employees here.

How did you find working in English in a Finnish-speaking environment?

Sabine: It was demanding but not uncomfortable for me. My understanding of Finnish is quite good, but I rarely use it. Then again, we also worked quite independently. In the office many people speak English well and also during meetings our colleagues were flexible and tried different ways of getting information through to us, be it through English summaries or on the spot translation. I was especially happy to also find a colleague who wanted to practise German and Finnish in a tandem, so I had the opportunity to speak Finnish through working at the City and felt I could give something back, too.

Radhika: Back in India, I worked in the public sector where we engaged with people from different states across the country in different languages that I did not necessarily understand. Working in English in a Finnish-speaking environment in that sense was not much different. Of course, it was challenging in many ways, especially when we had to find a common way of communicating that everyone was comfortable with. But, these challenges were gradually not mine alone and that made it easier to navigate. Through the internship, we shared these challenges and we collectively as a team tried different ways to help each other out.

Working in a Finnish-speaking environment created an opportunity for me to learn a bit more about the local culture and has pushed me to learn a new language. Inspired by my colleagues to have fun with language learning, I started to read ‘Aku Ankan Taskukirja’.  

What are your plans after the internship?

Sabine: To find a next opportunity, hopefully related to immigration and internationalisation issues. And, not to forget, I also need to finish my studies. My free time will quite a lot go into helping organise the Service Design Global Conference which will happen in October 2024 in Helsinki.

Radhika: During the holidays, I hope to use the time to catch up with friends, eat good food and reflect on my learnings in the past year. 

I will submit my thesis soon and graduate by the end of this year. I will start looking for work opportunities in Helsinki that foster my passion for combining aspects of sustainability and design in the public sector.