Miranda Li Goes to Ghana

August 14, 2017

College counselors, parents and that one relative that won’t stop asking you what you got on the SAT might tell you that internships offer valuable work experience in your field of interest, that they look good on a resume. In many cases, both of the above are true, but in my humble opinion, the true value of an internship lies in the more generalizable life lessons.

See, I’ve had two very different but equally fulfilling internship experiences, at a biostatistics lab at Stanford and then at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana. I’ve learned to sit at a lab bench without wreaking havoc, and I’ve become fascinated by biology, sure, but my most important takeaways have been non-academic.

Interning at Stanford during the summer before junior year taught me to be okay with having the lowest IQ in the room; the only other intern was a sophomore at Berkeley. She was working on an image recognition algorithm using convolutional neural networks. I was learning to open an Eppendorf tube with one hand.

I became more comfortable in my own company — driving myself to and from the internship each day to the tune of hackneyed radio pop, eating prepackaged Costco salad alone in a rooftop garden or wandering aimlessly through the Cantor museum.

And in a fortuitous plot twist, I became fascinated by the rapidly developing field of genomics.

I’d taken the internship at the genomics lab because it was the most appealing resume fodder I’d had access to at the time, but in the end, it was more than worthwhile.

The following summer, before my senior year, I was rejected from all of the research summer programs I applied to.

Disheartened and desperately seeking any research-related activity to occupy my summer, I took my tireless pursuit of micropipette-induced carpal tunnel to a more tropical climate. I flew 7,700 miles to Accra, Ghana, to research the immunogenetics of malaria at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research.

There, culture shock hit me like a piano, falling from a cliff, accelerated by a horde of angry bees flying downward. Then, and in similar moments throughout the rest of the trip, I learned to cope with being the only non-Ghanaian person in the room: the only Asian person, the only high schooler, the only American.

With culture shock came a sort of privilege shock, too: living without running hot water, living on less than 50 USD a week, the equivalent of less than five Chipotle bowls (my budgetary metric of choice) showed me how much I take for granted.

And in the end, it was more than worthwhile.

Had I not thrown myself wholeheartedly into the pursuit of resume fodder, had I not chased it from Palo Alto to Accra, I would not have experienced these things — total independence, blissful isolation, a culture unlike my own.

I concede that preparing for college is a stressful, competitive and flawed process, and it may drive us to unhealthy extremes. Seeking internships, doing anything for the sole purpose of college admissions, is surely not the most worthwhile course of action.

But every initially unenthusiastic extracurricular endeavor has a silver lining: my emotional investment in the college application process has taught me a lot, not just academically, that I could only have learned the hard way. My internship experiences have taught me about the failure and tedium and confusion inherent in adult life. They’ve shown me others’ culture and my own privilege, and they’ve introduced me to the warm, wonderful feeling of doing what I love. And for that, I am grateful.

Photo of Miranda Li
Miranda Li, Print Managing Editor



5'4". Black hair. Actually a lizard. When she think's no one's watching, spends time calling dogs pretty, watches videos about garlic bread in space...

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