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Sarah Tolbert

Posted on September 22, 2014

Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia

When I answered my phone in South Africa, I was surprised to hear an American accent on the other end ask “Is this Sarah?” The call was from The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia and they wanted to offer me an internship in their democracy program. Although overjoyed to be offered such a wonderful internship, I promptly asked how long I had to make a decision. When the voice answered tomorrow, I began to panic. Sure, this was an opportunity of a lifetime, but financially, how would I be able to take an unpaid internship? After logging online to send my dad an email to ask his opinion, I saw in my inbox an email from the Wellman Hill grant committee. Nervously, I opened the e-mail and after reading the first line, realized what it meant. I could take the Carter Center internship!

Without the Wellman Hill grant, I would not have been able to embark on one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. The Carter Center is one of the few NGOs that is regularly invited to observe elections around the globe. The Democracy Program conducts research on elections that the Carter Center could observe in the future. Beyond that, the Democracy Program works with governments to create or improve on current election laws as well. I was assigned to monitor political developments in Angola, Malawi, and Nigeria. News updates were only a small portion of my daily tasks. I also monitored the election reform in Nigeria and worked closely with my supervisors to draft memos to the Nigerian Election Commission to make recommendations to improve their election system. Writing political updates on Malaysia, Bangladesh and Nepal taught me about a part of the world I had no previous knowledge of. One of the most rewarding moments was to see the Memorandum of Understanding that I helped draft, signed by the African Union.

Despite learning in depth information about a plethora of countries, one of the greatest parts of my internship was the knowledge that what I did was actually useful. I was amazed by the hospitality President Carter gave to the interns, inviting us to spend the weekend with him on his farm even! Since the staff is so small, they rely heavily on the interns for most of their information. As an intern I was invited to attend weekly planning meetings and part of my internship was updating the staff on the political updates. Also, I had weekly meetings with the Democracy Program director in which the interns were allowed to ask any question about the Center and its work. Even eating lunch and speaking with interns increased my awareness of what I wanted to do with my life. Ninety percent of the interns either spoke a different language or were from different countries providing different outlooks and very interesting debates.

One of the most valuable experiences was learning that things are not black and white as often taught in the classroom. For example, even if elections were not perfect, the Carter Center judges them based on progress. Countries cannot be expected to have fair elections immediately. The Carter Center practically understands that and praises those countries that, although not perfect, are making improvements. Previously, I had the inclination to judge things as one way or another, so this aspect has been particularly valuable. Without the Wellman Hill grant, this opportunity would not have been possible and I am forever grateful for this endeavor.

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