The new intern interview podcast focuses on interviewing the interns of the VSFS Virtual Internship program at the VA. Interviewing interns will broaden the connections between other interns and help make friendships and foster teamwork within different departments. Each intern shares their experiences at college, their interests in veterans, and how they came to hear about and join the internship with VA.
Elizabeth is currently a graduate student in the oral history Master of Art program at Columbia University in New York City. In 2019, she graduated from Macaulay’s Honor’s program at Brooklyn College, doubled majored in Chemistry and History with a double minor in biology and biochemistry. During the course of her studies, she began interviewing veterans with PTSD, both during and post-service; using her interviews, Elizabeth wrote her undergraduate thesis on the effect that military masculinity and the media had on the portrayal on veterans with PTSD. Elizabeth is currently working on her graduate thesis which focuses on veterans transitioning to higher education and the obstacles that these transitions entail.
Elizabeth is excited to join the DME internship at the Department of Veteran Affairs as a writing intern.
Use the audio player to listen to Elizabeth’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the intern podcast here with the Department of Digital Media Engagement. My name is Shannon Moran, and I am an intern and Executive Team Leader here with DME. I help run multiple podcasts within our platform, and host this one as well. We work really hard to make sure that you, the listener, get to learn more about what we do here within our DME program, tour fellow interns, and hopefully you can learn more about the other departments that we have within our program, and maybe compel you to apply if you are not an intern with us. That being said, I hope you enjoy!
Today I have Elizabeth. She is a current graduate student in the Oral History Master of Arts program at Columbia University in New York City. In 2019 she graduated from McCully Honors Program at Brooklyn College. She double majored in Chemistry and History with a double minor in Biochemistry and Biology. During the course of her study she began interviewing veterans and collecting stories of post traumatic stress disorder during and post service. Using her interviews Elizabeth wrote her undergraduate thesis on the effect that military masculinity and the media had on the portrayal of veterans with PTSD. Currently she is working on her graduate thesis which will focus on veterans transitioning to higher education, and the obstacles that such transitions might entail. She is excited to join the DME internship at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a Writing Intern and we are so excited to have her! So, welcome Elizabeth! How are you today?
Elizabeth Jefimova: I’m doing well. I’m glad to be here.
SM: Great! So you just started. You’ve only been here about a week or so, right?
SM: Ok. First of all, your majors and minors are FANTASTIC. How did you end up going from chemistry and biology and biochemistry and history and all that stuff to writing, and writing about veterans?
EJ: So when I was an undergrad my mom and dad, they really wanted me to be a doctor. So I started off as a premed student, which explains the science background and whatnot. But as I went through it I was just absolutely miserable. I was doing well in my classes and I graduated with honors, but it was towards my junior and senior year that I was just like “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Somewhere during my sophomore year I realized that I can see in the future I am just going to blow it all off and do something else so I kinda needed a contingency plan. I entered college with a lot of history credits so I decided “Hey let me take some history classes and maybe have a history major as well.” The first class that I took was 19th and 20th century America at War, which was about every war that America was in. My mentor, Professor Napoli, who I still talk to today, assigned we had to interview veterans and write a research paper based on those interviews. My very first veteran that I interviewed was a World War 2 veteran, and he was actually part of the liberation group of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany.
EJ: Yeah so it was a really intense interview that I had with him. It was over six hours. I came over to his house and I brought bagels with lox, because he was also Jewish. He explained to me everything that happened to him and what he saw at the concentration camp, what his experience was in the military in Germany. It was a very tough interview I remember, and I came out and I said to myself “Damn. Everything so far my biggest worry so far is how am I going to do on my Organic Chemistry test, and here is at that age witnessing the worst that humanity has to offer.”
EJ: It was just a huge wakeup call, everything that he told. His experiences, his stories, his memories, they were really dark. I remember coming out of that interview and needing a few hours to myself because it was really heavy. And after that I guess it just solidified that I didn’t want to do premed anymore. I did not want to be a doctor, I didn’t want any of it. I slowly started interviewing more veterans, and I started collecting interviews. By the time I was in senior year I said to my mom “I’m going to finish the chemistry degree because I came all the way up to this point and I’m doing it, I want to finish it and have it. I don’t want to throw away all those classes and the stress that I did.” And yeah, I pulled out of all my other premed requirements. I finished the major, and did what I needed to do. I said to myself “Well, now that I’m graduating I will have a gap year and I need to figure out what I want to do in that gap year since I’m not going to medical school or doing any of those things.” I saw the Oral History masters program at Columbia. It was around February or March when I was a senior and I said “Well its kind of late to apply, I don’t know if I will get in, we’ll see” so I applied. It was the only graduate program that I applied to since everything else was either past the deadline or I just didn’t have enough to prepare my application. And sure enough, I got in! Then I was like “I guess I’m doing this! I’m going to interview veterans!” So that’s the short version of everything.
SM: That’s fantastic, and that’s such interesting work. I love when you take a class on a whim and it ends up changing everything for you.
EJ: Oh yeah
SM: That’s the best part of college. How did you find this internship?
EJ: I was actually just looking for federal government internships. Originally before I even started looking I was supposed to, over the summer work with the New York City Department of Veterans Services, and interview their veterans and make an archive of all their stories. Because of COVID that just completely went away. So I was still interested in doing something with veterans – it didn’t have to necessarily be interviewing I just wanted to continue my work. And sure enough, I came across this, the Virtual Student Federal Service internship, and I was like “huh, what do you guys offer?” And I saw the Veterans Affairs department had a lot of internships, and so I applied. I applied for three of your internship: research, writing, and editing. Because I really wanted to work with you guys I really wasn’t that specific, I would have been happy with whatever I got. And sure enough, I got it as a writing intern. And I was like “All right! This is great!” It was a big bonus because one of the assignments for writing interns is we can interview veterans as well. So I was like “Hey! This is totally what I’m doing right now, and I like doing it.” I took a chance and I applied, and I got in!
SM: That’s so awesome. So what have you… you’re only about a week or so in to this, what have you done so far?
EJ: So I’ve been doing my mock VOD, so I’ve… I feel like we’re almost done, me and my editor have been working really well together. And so far I am doing this interview with you guys. I saw that right now we are going to be approaching Hispanic Heritage Month. I might have a few friends that I want to chat up with and say “You want to be interviewed?” because they are veterans, so we’ll see where that goes. I would like to get into that… I would like to get back into interviewing veterans. This summer was just me studying for the GRE so I would like to go back to my roots now.
SM: Well if I can steal you away from the writing team I might have some opportunity for you to do that. So we should definitely talk about that after this interview.
SM: So what are you looking forward to? What do you really want to work on with your 9 months with the VA?
EJ: Definitely want to interview and just write a lot on those veterans, their experiences, their stories. Any aspect of storytelling I would really like to do. Also I would like to do research for any projects that need extra eyes to look for information. Or if a veteran might not have a complete profile for me to help out with finding additional details or contacting family members. Stuff like that really interests me, to be honest.
SM: So what… do you have veterans in your family? What about the veteran experience really appeals to you, and makes you want to dedicate all this time, and really it seems like you found your passion with veterans. What drew you to that, besides just an assignment for a class?
EJ: So I am a first generation American. So I don’t have anyone in my family who served in the American military. But my mother, she was from, she was born in Estonia, a former Soviet Union country. I don’t know, she just instilled in me this idea of supporting your country, even if that country might not really be doing the right things, because it was the Soviet Union. But she said, there’s this phrase and I don’t know if I’m allowed to curse, but she said “You don’t sh*t where you eat. Just because you might not be happy with some of a country’s policies doesn’t mean you need to badger it and leave.” Unless you’re being oppressed, of course that’s a different situation. But you know, living in America she instilled in me “Every place is going to have its problems, but you can’t just run away from it. You have to do what you can to improve it.” And I don’t know, this type of mentality transitioned into me really studying American history by myself on my own reading books. And I kept encountering these veteran’s stories, interviews, and news articles, and I just became fascinated by it.
SM: So what about the, you know your parents are immigrants and what about the immigrant experience and the veteran’s experience have you found? Are there similarities? Because they don’t seem like they would be connected on paper, but it sounds like you have seen connections between the two of them.
EJ: Umm so off the bat if I just had to do a quick round of answers I would say that they are very different experiences. But once you sit down and you start examining it more closely there are some similarities. And of course, they can intersect if someone who is an immigrant joins the military here.
SM: Right, of course
EJ: But that I can’t speak for that intersection because that didn’t happen in my family. But we did have family friends who did this and that happened to them and the way they described it was: one of our family friends who was South Korean and his parents survived the Korean War and he was able to come with his parents here to America and he decided to join the military because he was grateful that the US basically helped his parents stay alive and have him. So for that specific example it is more of a gratitude and he wanted to give back. Umm but in terms of just regular immigrant and veteran experiences they are very different but I think some of the foundations are the same. Some veterans or immigrants may find themselves alone, and have to find their own niche within their respective communities. They might not be able to articulate what they are feeling at a moment. These basic things I have found are similar, but it is also very different because you have to consider factors like: what type of background did they come from, what branch of service were they in, what religion or race are they from? And so there are so many factors that you also have to consider. So its very different, but somewhat similar to if that
SM: Yeah. That’s… I was genuinely just curious. So what do you want to do after your degree in Oral Communication, as well as just after this internship and in general?
EJ: So I am in the process of preparing my law school application.
EJ: So I am hoping to go into law school and either study Constitutional Law or National Security Law as I find that stuff interesting. The only thing that I would say is National Security Law doesn’t really encompass veteran laws, or anything that specifically aids veterans. But again I feel like every person who applies to either med school or graduate school, they all say that they want to do one thing and then they end up, like me, changing their mind and doing something else.
SM: Which is why we go to school, right?
EJ: Exactly, yeah
SM: And nobody expects the 18 year old, or the 24 year old, or whatever to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their life.
EJ: Exactly. My only thing is that if I go to law school I definitely want to work still within the veteran community or the military community in general. But we will see which type of law would really help me out with that.
SM: That’s fantastic. Yeah that’s really cool. What has been your favorite thing about the internship so far?
EJ: I like that everyone is so friendly. I kind of expected – I’m a pessimist at heart – so when I joined the slack channel everyone is like “Introduce yourself, oh it’s resume Friday, it’s linkedin Monday, everyone good morning, oh I’m drinking this coffee” and I was like “Woah, there’s so much pep here.” And there’s so many people, like what the hell is going on? But you know its actually really nice. It’s really nice and what you guys are trying to do with so many people doing an internship, especially considering it is all virtual, to try and have some sort of
EJ: Community, exactly. It’s really nice. So I’ll start participating more on the slack channels but it really caught me off guard at the beginning.
SM: Me too, and I love what is special about our program is we have interns from all ages and backgrounds
EJ: Oh yeah, I saw that
SM: Which is so cool. I wasn’t expecting that. So what are your goals in life, in the internship, in whatever? What are you working on or working towards?
EJ: Like in general?
SM: Yeah, in general in the internship, in whatever way you want to take that question feel free.
EJ: In general I just have a simple rule as my motto: Do what makes you happy. But whatever you do that will make you happy make sure it is reasonable and practical at the same time. So I guess that’s where my strict family upbringing comes in. You can do whatever you want that makes you happy, but be sure it isn’t too idealistic, without any certain criteria, or certain steps to success thing. And so you know, once I dropped premed I was like listen, if I’m going to go into law or I’m going to go into history, I need to have a plan. I need to make sure that whatever I do, it needs to be supported by something else. And I knew this path was going to make me infinitely happier than where I was as a premed student. So I guess a general rule that I follow is do what is going to make you happy and actually make you smile when you do the work, but make sure you have a plan and always a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. I just apply this rule to everything that I do, whether work, school or personal things or whatever. So when it comes to this internship, I am just going to do whatever kind of work that I know I will enjoy, but it also has structure for me where if this doesn’t turn out let me do this, this, and this just to make it work. And I really liked from the bootcamp and all those slack messages about Trello, how you can pick a card, and how super specific it is with instructions, and what you can do and can’t do. I really like that, I like instructions. Umm I thought it was really direct and to the point, but you also have room to maneuver and do what you want or you feel confident with. So for the internship that’s what I’m excited to do. To do all these various projects that might not necessarily be in my skill set, but I have room to learn and to do it.
SM: And you never know, you never know where your next opportunity is going to come from, right?
EJ: Exactly, yeah!
SM: You probably started that veterans interview for class and had no idea the journey that it would take you on
EJ: Oh, yeah
EJ: Oh, yeah. I had a few people from my undergrad reach out to me and be like, “Oh how are you doing? I’m still doing premed but I’m kind of interested in this” and I’m just like “Do it! If it is interesting to you I guarantee you, if you truly like it you will keep on doing it.” If you have second thoughts now you just keep everything the same.
EJ: So I keep telling people, “Don’t just do science! Take a language class, do whatever, but if you like it just do it, and you will see in the end.”
SM: That’s awesome.
EJ: Yeah, I’m definitely one of those people. Don’t just stick to science or STEM. I understand the appeal, but don’t do it. Don’t limit yourself.
SM: What is your advice to new interns or people looking, you know maybe they’re deciding if this internship is right for them?
EJ: Well my advice would be for any position or internship that you apply to, make sure that this is 100% what you want to do. Don’t do it because you want another label on your resume. If you’re going to apply to specifically this internship you have to ask yourself why you applied to this internship. Is it because you just want to show schools you were involved in something? Or is it because you genuinely want to work within the veteran community or help veterans? So that’s one thing I would tell them. And two, if this is what you want to do then apply. But make sure it’s to the specific, whether its research, writing, editing, or graphic design or whatever, make sure you apply to the department that is better suited to you or your skills. Just because you may be interested in one thing doesn’t necessarily mean you might be right for the department.
SM: And especially since with this internship you should have the opportunity to work on things outside of your department.
SM: So if there’s interest you do have that possibility to be a part of that.
EJ: Exactly, but when you’re sending in the application in the first round don’t just say “Ooh I like graphic design but I have no computer science experience.” You know what I mean? That’s what I mean. Apply to the program or internship that you have the skills and you can help that department out. Then when you’re in the program say “Well I’m also interested in this, and I want to do this.” So you have to be smart about it. That’s what I would say.
SM: Yeah I completely agree. Tell me a fun fact about yourself.
EJ: So I am 5’9”. I guess for girls that’s really tall, I don’t know. On my mother’s side I am the tallest, but on my biological father’s side I am the shortest.
SM: So there you go! That’s a fun fact.
Thank you for tuning into the DME intern podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!