Lessons Learned from Three Months of Internship Experience at the Brookings Institution

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Interning at Brookings gave Ardhi an opportunity to learn about office environment in the US. (Photo by Author)

Ever wondered what it’s like to intern at one of the world’s most prestigious think tanks? Our new North America contributor, Ardhi, is a master’s student at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and he had the opportunity to intern at Brookings under their Director of the Global Economy and Development program, Dr. Homi Kharas. Read more to hear about his research, brown bag discussions, and living in Washington, DC!

One of the advantages of taking a master’s degree in the US is the opportunity to implement what we learn on campus in the real world through internships. In the summer of 2018, I got an opportunity to do an internship at the Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington DC. Their mission is to conduct in-depth research that lead to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national, and global level.

I’m grateful to have a chance to finish my internship there, as Brookings is one of the most prestigious think tanks in the world. Brookings has five research programs: Economic Studies, Foreign Policy, Global Economy and Development, Governance Studies, and Metropolitan Policy Program. I worked at the Global Economy and Development Program with Dr. Homi Kharas (Interim Vice President and Director of the Program). During my internship, I researched the global middle class and assisted Dr. Kharas in preparing his upcoming book on the subject. In his book, Dr. Kharas aims to inform readers about the impact of the emerging middle class from various perspectives, such as business and innovation, gender politics and social stability, environment, climate change, and democracy.

My internship was very relevant to my study at Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I am working toward a Master of International Development Policy, and my internship was in international development research—so I think it fairly matches! During the internship, my main job was to write a 15-page paper every week, so it reminded me very much of my assignments on campus, and I felt prepared. The difference is, on campus we usually write a 15-25 page paper for the midterm or final exam, but during my internship, I had to do the same amount of work every single week. It was very challenging yet enjoyable.

With Homi Kharas of Brookings. (Photo by Author)
With Homi Kharas of Brookings. (Photo by Author)

What did I learn from my research at Brookings?

Global middle class—the issue that I covered for my summer research at Brookings—is a very interesting and important subject. The middle class is the engine for the modernization of economies. According to World Data Lab, more than half the world’s population is for the first time living in households earning enough to be considered middle or upper class, with five people joining the ranks every second. The rising of the middle class has some benefits, for example regarding the creation of employment opportunities, the development of new business models and innovation, and their contribution to economic growth in many developing countries.

The emerging population of the middle class, however, also brings some challenges to the world. In the environment, for example, they consume plastic and produce a lot of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. In the economy, the rising of the middle class stimulates the shift in the global economy. In business, big companies need to change their business strategy to win the middle class market. The list is long. A larger middle class population and market has significant economics, politics, environmental, and social implications. A study about this issue is important, at least, to understand today and the future global landscape.

The middle class in Indonesia

What I love from doing research about the global middle class is that it really relates to Indonesia. Since the Reformation era, the Indonesian middle class has grown dramatically. Indonesia now has one of the largest middle class populations in the world. According to the World Bank, in 2017, the middle class in Indonesia is at least 52 million people. Its consumption accounts for 43 percent of total household consumption.

Any government in Indonesia, if it wishes to succeed, should pay a lot more attention to the middle class. At some point, the government has always been influenced by Indonesia’s elite and has given a lot of attention to its poor. Now it must also systematically and strategically engage the middle class. Increasingly, Indonesia’s development goals will coincide ever more closely with the aspirations of its middle class. Engaging the middle class might well be the most effective way to increase the development-effectiveness of government policies.

Benefits

In the US, think tanks play an important role in development as they provide ideas to influence the policy-making process. Considering the fact that I worked at a government institution in Indonesia prior to Duke, it is really fascinating to see how experts in think tanks catalyze these ideas from a different perspective.    

During my internship, I had the opportunity to learn about the office environment in the US. People come from all around the world to this country which makes Washington DC the perfect place to learn about diversity and to respect cultural differences. I also learned that Brookings is a place where high-level policy discussion and intellectual research activities are the typical days at work. Everyone is dedicated and focused on their research.

Summer 2018 Brookings Interns. (Photo by Brookings Institution)
Summer 2018 Brookings Interns. (Photo by Brookings Institution)

What I also really like is that there are many discussions, either at Brookings or think tanks around the Dupont Circle area, where Brookings is located. These formal discussions and seminars give me a great chance to update with international development issues and to listen from global experts.  

Brookings also has various types of brown bag discussions. While a seminar is more formal, a brown bag meeting is an informal discussion that occurs around lunchtime. This meeting is called a brown bag meeting because participants discuss the topics while they bring their lunches on the table, which are often packed in brown paper bags.

Brownbag discussion for young researchers. (Photo by Author)
Brownbag discussion for young researchers. (Photo by Author)

One of the brown bag discussions that I attended was a meeting for young researchers only. I think this kind of brown bag is very cool. These meetings stimulate critical thinking of young fellows from different programs, and it is also a good forum to share ideas among people from the same generation. Attending these events (seminars and brown bag meetings) is a great networking opportunity as you are exposed to a lot of really awesome people!

Bridging to the next semester

I’m happy to say that my summer internship opportunity also matched with my expectations. In our program on campus, the faculty and career adviser told us to use the internship experience to think about and refine the topics that we want to take on for our final Master’s project. I’m glad that I found my topic while I was doing my internship. In addition to discovering my topic and some initial readings for my master’s project, I also found my academic adviser. Having said that, my internship experience has helped me prepare myself for the next semester.

Several months after I finished my internship, I got a chance to present my summer research at Duke Conference on International Development during the poster session. I think this opportunity is a good moment to get feedback on my research. I got many unique perspectives about the global middle class that I didn’t get from the journals I read or the discussions I had, back in the office.

Fall in love with Washington DC

Last but not least, another interesting experience I got outside the office was the enjoyable life in Washington DC. I only lived in DC for three months, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I love this city. There are so many reasons to fall in love with DC. Firstly, DC is a very multicultural city. Living in DC will give us the chance to meet people from a different country every single day. Secondly, DC has ample and reliable public transportation systems. I used the DC Metro most of the time and its always on time. The Metro stations are clean as well.

There is always something to do in DC. (Photo by Author)
There is always something to do in DC. (Photo by Author)

Another reason to love DC is that there is always something to do and there are always places to visit in DC (or cities around DC!). Other than headquarter offices for international institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, and global think tanks, we can also visit various museums and historic sites for free. Moreover, DC is a very pedestrian friendly city. I was lucky to live in DC during the summer so that I could enjoy walking and spending time in public parks while reading my favorite books. Overall, DC has been a great place to grow academically, socially, and culturally.