NATO Intern Gets Rare View of Life Behind Military Gates

Sarah Rich walked on to the NATO military base in Mons, Belgium, last June, little did she know she was walking into a world where she’d once again be introduced to a new language and culture.

At 20, this Scripps senior from Santa Clara, California, was no stranger to foreign travel. She had spent time studying in Santiago de Chile and several cities in France. But the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) military base where she interned for nine weeks last summer on the Scripps College NATO Internship* was a far cry from the dorms and university halls where she studied abroad.

“I went to Belgium straight from France, so there was no culture shock between countries,” says Sarah, a dual major in politics and French with a minor in Hispanic studies. “The culture shock for me was the military environment. I went from being a student in a university environment to an intern on a military base, dressing up every day and reporting for work at 8:30 a.m.”

Besides adapting to working in an office culture, Sarah-already fluent in French and Spanish-also found herself learning a new language: the NATO office lingo, made of up the acronyms and military codes used by all office workers.

“When I first arrived, I had no idea what people were saying,” Sarah said.

It didn’t take Sarah long to acclimate to her new surroundings. “A month after I returned from Belgium, I was still speaking in acronyms, and no one knew what I was talking about,” Sarah laughs.

Still, working for NATO’s Public Information Office was a wonderful opportunity, Sarah says. It offered her a unique insight into life behind military gates.

Her projects included writing a series of articles on topics including the lessons learned during the accession and integration of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO. She also worked on shorter-term projects like updating the visitor presentation on NATO’s 50-year history and analyzing world news items as they were covered in French and English language publications.

“There was so much I didn’t even know about NATO before I worked there,” Sarah says. Sarah learned fast. NATO represents the union of the military operations of 19 countries as a defense alliance. It’s more recently known for its role in the peacekeeping effort in Kosovo and Bosnia.

“To me, the most interesting thing at NATO was to watch the bureaucracy in action,” Sarah says. “When you consider they are coordinating efforts among the militaries of 19 different countries and their own policies, it’s amazing to see that, despite the bureaucracy, it somehow all manages to work.”

Sarah says the experience fortified her desire to pursue her career goal of working in international human rights law. Her first assignment after graduation from college this May, she hopes, will be a 27-month stint with the Peace Corps.

“From my NATO experience I learned that I really like working in an international environment,” Sarah says. “When I’d go to the cafeteria to eat, I’d walk in and hear 15 different languages, and each person had different stories about the places they’ve lived and visited. That was probably the best part-all the people from all different countries I had the chance to work with and meet.”

*The Scripps College NATO Internship is sponsored by the European Union Center of California. It provides a rare opportunity for a Scripps student to gain insight into NATO by spending six to ten weeks during the summer working with the Supreme Commander of NATO and his staff at SHAPE headquarters in Mons, Belgium.