WHILE working as manager of the American Embassy in his native Senegal, West Africa during the mid-1990's Cheickhou Tidiane Diagne said he got to meet prominent Americans like President Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, the jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie and retired Gen. Colin Powell.

All of them encouraged Mr. Diagne to consider the opportunities that awaited him in the United States. That's when Mr. Diagne started thinking about coming to the United States to pursue a career in the hotel, restaurant and club management industry.

Now, as he is close to earning an associate's degree in the Hospitality Management Program at Norwalk Community-Technical College, Mr. Diagne is preparing to spend the next few months learning more about his chosen field as a summer intern at the Shore and Country Club in Norwalk, one of several private clubs in Fairfield County.

The club's several hundred members enjoy dining, tennis, swimming and boating on 8 1/2 acres that are surrounded on three sides by the waters of Norwalk harbor and Long Island Sound.

''I never heard even heard of Connecticut and didn't really know what a country club was before I worked at the American Embassy,'' Mr. Diagne said. ''But then I started talking to people who kept telling me there were great career opportunities in the United States in the hospitality field.''

About two years ago, Mr. Diagne said he followed his dream to the United States and ended up in Connecticut because his wife was already working in the state and, as luck would have it, Norwalk Community-Technical College had, and still has, a hospitality program that helps place students in internships.

Along with hundreds of other students who take part in college hospitality programs across the country, Mr. Diagne said he looked forward to working this summer as a country club intern ''to learn every facet of the business.''

While summer interns work long hours, many say they enjoy the experience and don't mind the work as long as they are involved in activities that will help them in their careers.

Some time later this year, or in early 2001, Mr. Diagne plans to further his career by pursuing a bachelor's degree in the hospitality field at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. But he said the next few months working as a summer intern at the Shore and Country Club are just as crucial to his long-term goals.

James Hutchinson, the Shore and Country Club general manager, said Mr. Diagne and other interns -- who come from Ireland, Nigeria, Wales and West Africa -- get to earn college credit, receive an hourly wage and work in assistant manager roles.

Mr. Hutchinson said the five interns who will work at the club this summer would do everything from planning parties, dinners and weddings to making sure club guests have the right tennis rackets and equipment for their boats. Some interns, with a particular focus on being chefs, work in the kitchen preparing meals, he said.

''We get young people with tremendous energy, creativity and enthusiasm, and they get to spend the summer gaining invaluable experience in this business they couldn't get anywhere else,'' Mr. Hutchinson said. ''We even let our interns sit in our board meetings to see how country clubs operate behind the scenes.''

Sometimes working as a summer intern can lead directly to a job. Mr. Hutchinson said knows of at least 16 former summer interns at his club now working full-time in the hospitality industry.

Working as an intern at the Country Club of Darien the past two summers helped Cyrenna Shuler, 22, land a permanent job there after graduating with a bachelor of science degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration from the University of South Carolina.

''I think it's really important to spend a summer or two working as an intern and I learned more about the hospitality business doing that than in class or from books,'' said Ms. Shuler, now employed full-time in the accounting department to learn ''a completely different part of the business.''

''Most college students think they know what a real job in their field is going to be like,'' she said. ''But until you get in there and do it there's no way to fully grasp what it's really going to be like. You need to find out if this is really what you want to spend your life doing.''

Ms. Shuler said working as an intern last summer at the club convinced her even more that she was in the right field.

''I love everything about it, the people, the entertainment and all the different situations you have to handle,'' said Ms. Shuler, of Orangeburg, S.C.. ''The first summer I managed the snack bar and learned how to manage banquets, and then last summer I planned weddings and parties. It's one thing to talk about how you would deal with certain situations that could come up, but it's another thing when you have to serve 300 guests at a wedding.''

Ian Fetigan,the general manager of the Darien country club, said that for years summer interns have helped provided much-needed help in the clubhouse and dining rooms, on the tennis courts and golf course, and at the swimming pools. He said that with more than 600 members, summer interns have provided ''an absolutely essential service to our regular staff and members.''

Scott Smith, 22, who graduated from the University of South Carolina last year and worked as an intern at the club last summer, said the experience helped him land a job there as an operations manager, which means he will help schedule, plan and manage a wide range of club events.

''Working as an intern is great way to spend the summer, especially if this is the career you want to pursue,'' Mr. Smith said. ''And there's no better way to make contacts in the business than by working at a club during the summer.''

Tom Connolly, coordinator of the Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts program at Norwalk Community Technical College, said students in the program are from Hungary, Lithuania, South America, Africa and eastern Europe.

''They come to Connecticut for our program and because there are so many clubs, hotels and restaurants throughout the Northeast region,'' said Mr. Connolly. Mr. Connolly said most club interns come from outside Connecticut because students in the hospitality industry like to travel and work in different parts of the country.

But Darren DeMaille of Stratford, who spent the past three summers working as a summer intern in the golf club at the Country Club of Fairfield, said the experience helped him land a job there as a golf pro just a few miles from where he grew up.

''I love teaching people how to play golf, it's the best job in the world, but I never could have gotten hired without having first worked as an intern working in the caddy program and helping plan golf tournaments,'' said Mr. DeMaille, 23, who will work half the year in Fairfield, and during the winter months at a country club in West Palm Beach, Fla.

''It was fun working here as an intern, and for me it really did help me get my dream job.''