AIMS Co-op Students Mobility and Personal Life Experience at CEPEI, Colombia

Sokhar Samb and Jamiil Ali Touré

Scoring the internship experience

After a successful completion of 10 months of intensive coursework, punctuated by rotational three-week blocks of lecturing dispensed by international lecturers, 24/7 capacity building by our tutors, and countless 5-minute tests had flown by and it was finally time for the work placement term, a mandatory component of the Cooperative Education (Co-op) program. The time had come for us to apply our knowledge and put our skills in practice within challenging professional settings and we were excited. A little scared too!

We were 34 talented students from AIMS Senegal, each unique in their own right, vying for the most coveted work placement opportunities. Through its Industry Initiative, AIMS-NEI leverages linkages with various Co-op industry partners [1] to facilitate work placements for all Co-op students across the AIMS-NEI network. As one of key steps in the work placement facilitation process, following a job readiness hands-on training, the team at AIMS Senegal had shared all 34 CVs with their database of industry partners who were expected to make a preliminary selection.

One day, we each received an email stating that we were invited for a meeting scheduled to hold a week later. First came the excitement — we were happy to be among the five students shortlisted for an interview with CEPEI. Then came the anxiety — the preparation for the interview got challenging and we began to fret. We are thankful for the professional skills development working sessions we had with Dr. Charles Lebon Mberi Kimpolo [2] and Dr. Layih Butake [3] as they motivated and pushed us, keeping us focused on the objectives of the training. The first interview with the Data Area Coordinator of CEPEI was a smooth ride, where they walked us through the nuts and bolts of CEPEI. This was followed by an intensive technical second round, where the Managing Director grilled us on a series of questions. Then the congratulatory email finally came and we were ecstatic. We were itching to discover Latin America and enthusiastic about the exposure and experience we would gain from working with an international organization outside Africa.

Visa application process and travel experience

So we finally made it, yay! We had come to the planning stage, where we had to handle visa and accommodation procedures. The administrative channels were interminable and exhausting. When we received the admission letters from CEPEI we thought getting the visa would be a piece of cake. To our greatest dismay, that rather turned out to be the most tedious part of the process. We learned that we had to establish our visa from the Colombia Consulate in Ghana. We were informed that everything could be done online and we would receive our electronic visa (e-visa), which sounded less time consuming. Next, we completed the online form as a first step to request for an e-visa after delaying with some requirements of the consulate such as picture and legal document from CEPEI and AIMS Senegal as the AIMS Industry Initiative team was finalising the partnership agreement between AIMS-NEI and CEPEI. After completion, it took few days for the consulate to respond to our request and when they did respond, we had to wire the visa fees through a bank account, then share the transaction code with the consulate, before the visa would be issued. After some back and forth due to failed transactions, the payment was finally made. Sokha’s visa came first and Jamiil had to wait on his toes until his visa came a few days later!

Prior to our travel date, Mr. Fredy Rodriguez [4] and Mrs. Margarita Vaca [5] chatted with us via Skype and discussed accommodation, living conditions and organizational culture, providing some background information on the Bogota context. Dr. Layih Butake who was as exhausted as we were due to the hardship we went through just for a visa had already made flight reservations for July 3rd, 2018. The trip was uneventful, except that it lasted 10 long hours!

Discovering Bogota

Landing at the airport of Bogota, we were received by CEPEI (we were received by Mrs. Margarita Vaca at CEPEI) who took us to our temporary residence in la Candelaria. First day at CEPEI — we were like little kids in a candy store! We got to learn more about the agenda of CEPEI as a think tank, meeting the staff and carving our niche in the work environment.

This was the first time for both of us to travel outside Africa. We had to adapt to a new language and climate. When we arrived at our residence, the host couple spoke neither English nor French, just Spanish. As a result, we needed to quickly learn some simple phrases in Spanish in order to survive. We equally cultivated dramatic expression, as more often than not, as we needed to gesticulate in order to be understood! The good news was that these difficulties pushed us to quickly build our Spanish vocabulary. The climate is another story! Here we were, two young people from a tropical region of 35 to 40 degrees, now experiencing glacial temperatures which could get as cold as 8 degrees! It was a huge challenge in the first two to three months. We were touched by the generosity and “joie de vivre” of the people of Bogota. Our guide took us on a tour to discover Cali, Villavicencio and Boyacá, culminating in a Shakira concert!

Working with CEPEI

We easily adapted to CEPEI, first of all, because everyone at the office spoke English. Secondly, in addition to working on a software which we were comfortable with, we had the support of our supervisor and the entire data team. We had three main tasks:

  1. Build an algorithm to download data from websites in Latin America especially in Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. We were mandated to develop an algorithm to scrape data linked to the Sustainable Development Goals from selected web pages in the above countries using R.
  2. Conduct research about the use of non-traditional data sources for the measurement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the data Ecosystem of sustainable development in the Dominican Republic. The first entailed producing a document to provide an overview on how the non-traditional data sources are or can be integrated in the process of the measurement of the SGDs in Dominican Republic; while the second document addressed how the SDGs are approached in Dominican Republic, with details on the executive team or third party acting on the topic, as well as the progress and future actions undertaken by the Dominican Republic toward the attainment of the 2030 Agenda.
  3. Use Python to carry out research on Gender-based violence in Colombia using data from twitter.

Throughout these projects we were able to develop and ameliorate many skills. First and foremost, we gained one of the important data scientist skills — scraping (this means looking for data in Data Science parlance). Through data exploration, we equally garnered crucial information on the SDGs, in line with the CEPEI agenda to transfer SDG-related knowledge by investigating data. This work experience has helped us build advanced capacity in R, Python, scraping, crawling, text mining, analysis, and storytelling. Our professionalism and confidence was equally boosted by our weekly meetings with our supervisor and his team, who gave us suggestions and comments about our work, equally giving us the opportunity to share our viewpoints. Thanks to AIMS Senegal and CEPEI, we are confident about our future as Data Scientists.

Endnotes

[1] A formal work setting in private and public institutions including (companies, government departments and research institutions).

[2] Bilingual Senior Program Manager, AIMS Industry Initiative.

[3] Communications & Outreach Manager, Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program.

[4] Data Area Coordinator, CEPEI.

[5] Data Area Researcher, CEPEI.