The AWF Internship Experience


The following post was written by AWF's 2011 summer Marketing Intern Jake Abell.

Last summer, I traveled from the beauty of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya to the urban office of African Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C. In just under three days. Look up “culture shock” in the dictionary and you will see a small diagram depicting my flight pattern. I had come to Washington for an internship in the marketing department of AWF through a program at my school where I study French, Environmental Science, and Film. I had high hopes...and no clue what I was about to get myself into.

A rainstorm on the Maasai Mara. Photo courtesy of Billy Dodson.

What might have been eight weeks of mindlessly filing paper work exploded into a creative, dynamic, challenging adventure that had me writing website copy, collaborating with staff members on print publications, and crafting social media campaigns to publicize AWF events. It was my first time working in an office, but it was also the first time I realized what can be accomplished from behind a desk.

I come from a science background; if you want to make a difference in the world, you go out into the field and you do it. You sweat. You roll up your sleeves. In fact, I had just come from Kenya where I had had the privilege of working alongside some incredibly dedicated students and teachers from Baylor on a variety of public health projects. And I just wasn’t quite sure how all this marketing and media relations really accomplished anything worthwhile.

It took me all of two weeks to find out. Working with and learning from AWF’s graphic designers, corporate fundraisers, and marketing experts quickly demonstrated to me the awesome things that an organization like AWF accomplishes from behind a desk. Every social media post, every new campaign, every phone call was always explicitly directed towards facilitating and supporting AWF’s conservation projects on the ground in Africa. This was evidenced most clearly in the personal connections each person in the office had with Africa’s people and wild lands. One employee was eagerly anticipating a trip to Kenya to touch base with dear friends and help some conservation efforts progress on the ground. And I’ll never forget what one of my bosses told me near the end of my internship: “I started work in Africa because of my love for wildlife and wild lands. But it was the people who I came to love, and it’s the people who keep calling me back.”


AWF CEO Patrick Bergin and VP of Philanthropy and Marketing Craig Sholley at the Brookfield Zoo 50th Anniversary Event. Photo courtesy of Jim Schultz.

One day in July, as we were all busily preparing for a huge event at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, a buzz swept through the office; I kept hearing, “Charlie’s here! He just got in!” Charlie turned out to be none other than the Director of the Congo Heartland himself. It was a special sight to see the level of connection and affection between him and the folks in the office. They eagerly exchanged stories and greetings, but what impressed me the most was the way that those connections spoke to the intentions and motivations of the people in the office around me. Here was this conservation manager from thousands of miles away, and the whole show stopped so everyone could  welcome and greet him. When everyone returned to their desks, I could suddenly see how years of friendship with Africa’s wonderful people and experience with its wild lands were the things that made the whole office function. And that’s the kind of authenticity and integrity that kept defining my whole internship experience.

In sum, the whole eight weeks was a humbling experience. It revealed to me my silly assumptions I had about marketing and media relations that I set out to disprove or confirm. To say they were disproved is a grievous understatement. What I will say is that my internship taught me the worth of working for a better world from behind a desk, and that a phone, the internet, and a notepad go just as far as a shovel and a test tube. I learned a million and one things in my internship at AWF, but nothing so valuable as the principle that meaningful conservation work takes scientists and marketers to function successfully in the world.

To interested interns: treat yourself to a challenging, rewarding experience and apply to work at AWF today. To AWF’s members and followers: it was a privilege to help support your work for eight wonderful weeks. And to anybody out there like me fostering the notion that marketing somehow takes second place to field work, know that the African Wildlife Foundation succeeds everyday in dismantling that assumption.