July 25, 2006

Helen Yang '07 returns from ILR's first credited Beijing internship eager to pursue a career in China

For Helen Yang '07 destiny may have arrived through the first credited undergraduate internship in Asia offered through Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Yang spent her junior spring semester in Beijing working on an International Labour Organization (ILO) project to prevent the exploitation of girls and young women in the Chinese labor force. Previously her ILR studies had focused on dispute resolution as well as Chinese labor relations. Her semester in Beijing gave her hands-on experience in policy work in those areas.

"After my internship with the ILO, I am eager to pursue a career in China," she said. "My perspectives broadened during daily interactions with local Chinese and expatriates in Beijing."

Yang's official tasks at the ILO's Beijing office included Web-based research and project Web site design, among other duties. Along the way, she spent time with some of the people the program was created to assist.

"I met and spoke informally with migrant workers all throughout Beijing, mostly in the service industry," said Yang. "They were often the waiters and waitresses, masseuses and ayis [maids, but literally translated as 'aunties'], providing service in the city. Many were willing to share their experiences as migrant workers in Beijing."

China's urban workforce includes millions of migrant laborers from rural areas, according to the ILO. They are essential to the nation's explosive growth. Most migrants are men, but the number of young, undereducated women aged 16 to 20 is fast on the rise. Naïve and ill prepared for city life, some young women and girls are vulnerable to coercion. Many are trafficked into the "entertainment" industry and become victims of debt bondage, forced labor and prostitution. "Many are unaware of their legal rights and do not know they are being exploited," said Yang. "Hiring children under 16 to work in China constitutes exploitation as it is illegal under Chinese labor laws."

Yang's credit internship was supported largely through a travel grant awarded by ILR International Programs from the Waks Family Fund for International Education and Research. The fund, named for Jay (ILR '68, Law '71) and Harriet Waks, is intended to enhance the ILR School's international profile and to increase understanding of globalization in economic and human development.

A major highlight of her internship was meeting United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who visited Beijing in May. She also met alumni through the Cornell Club in Beijing and the Cornell Law School's Explorations in Law and Culture program held in Beijing in May. "By the conclusion of my internship, I was not too surprised to meet Cornellians," Yang said. "Both students and professionals surprised me with their detailed knowledge of Cornell. Other Chinese students had heard about the CAPS [China and Asia-Pacific Studies] program."

She added that it also was fairly common for Chinese students to know facts about Cornell and its environs.

"One student from Tsinghua [University] asked me, 'Ithaca. Isn't it really cold over there?'"