10 Phases You’ll Go Through Your First Days of Interning Abroad

by Christine Williams

Interning abroad can be an incredible way to experience a new country. You can find a position in a field that you’ve studied and eventually want to pursue a career in. It is a great resume booster because it not only shows that you have experience, but that you have the independence and guts to work in a new, challenging environment. You can also get hands-on experience that you may not be able to back home.

A woman taking a selfie on the Great Wall of China

Say you’re interested in environmental studies, interning abroad could give you the opportunity to help protect local sea turtle populations. Say you’re diehard about fashion, you could grab the chance to intern abroad during fashion week. This real world experience is impressive for future employers… not to mention you’ll probably have one of the most exciting and unique experiences of your life.

The first few days of interning abroad are especially thrilling. New sights, sounds, and smells constantly remind you that you’re in a foreign country. Even the most banal errands, like running to the corner store, are exhilarating. Everything is different and exciting, but those first days aren’t easy; acclimating to an unfamiliar environment can be physically and mentally taxing. The rollercoaster of highs, lows, and everything in between will make you dizzy. Here are the phases you’ll undoubtedly go through in your first few days of interning abroad: 

Phase 1: This is AWESOME!

You’re stoked! You’re at your first day at your brand new internship and so far so good. Sure, you’re a bit nervous, but you’ve got your biggest go-getter smile on so no one can tell. You’ve been waiting for this moment for months! You have applied, been accepted, saved up, and the day is finally here to start your internship. Living overseas for the first time may be challenging, but how hard could it really be? 

Phase 2: OMG, what have I gotten myself into?!

As confident as you feel walking into your first intern experience abroad, the mid-day heart attack is unavoidable. It suddenly sinks in that you’ve committed yourself for an extended period of time to living in a foreign country where you may not know anyone nor speak the language… nor understand much about their business norms and etiquette. A lot of info is coming at you fast and it can be overwhelming! You start to realize this isn’t going to be a breezy vacation. You’ve got to put your adult pants on because there’s no one here to hold your hand. You might be asking yourself: did I really think this through? 

Phase 3: Okay I’m starting to get the hang of this.

The first days of interning abroad usually include orientation, a tour of the workplace, and meeting your coworkers. You can start to get your bearings and get a better idea of what you’ll be doing in the coming weeks or months. Instead of being totally freaked out with all of the new changes, you start to feel a bit more comfortable at your internship. 

Phase 4: We’re having what for lunch?!

One of the biggest adjustments about living abroad may be the food. Chances are you won’t be having a burger and fries for lunch. Depending on where you are you may have something exotic like fried crickets at your internship in Thailand, something fresh and delicious like mangos picked from the tree, or something sort of unidentifiable that doesn’t look too appetizing. Unless you have dietary restrictions or allergies, give it a try. Trying new foods is a great way to experience the local culture. Besides, having a Bali belly (or your local equivalent) at least once is kind of a right of passage.

A man with his Chinese friends having lunch

Phase 5: I’m going to make so much CHANGE!

This is the empowerment phase. You’ll start to learn more about the company or organization you’re interning for. You’ll remember why you were so psyched to intern abroad in the first place and can really begin to see where you’ll fit into the organization. You’ll start to envision making big changes in the industry or community.

You already have your heart set on a passion project and know you’ve got what it takes to absolutely kill it in this internship. You’re on top of the world!

Phase 6: NOPE, no idea what I’m doing!

….And then you’re brought back down to earth. You remember that you’re not the company director, or even an employee; you’re an intern. Not to say that interns aren’t a key part of an organization; they bring an enthusiastic youthful energy and a fresh perspective to the workplace. But it’s easy to get overly excited and ambitious in your first few days while you learn your place at the organization. Chances are interns are at the bottom of the corporate food chain. You may end up doing menial tasks like running errands or, heaven forbid, filing!

The most important thing to remember is that you’re there to learn. This is a time to absorb, take in as much as you can, and see how everything works.

Phase 7: This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Interning abroad you’re bound to hit a few speed bumps. Cultural differences and language misunderstandings should be expected. Getting through these can be frustrating and at times embarrassing. Maybe you bumble a difficult Spanish word at your internship in Madrid and instead of saying you’re embarrassed, you wind up telling your elderly landlord that you’re pregnant (embarazada). Navigating your way through a foreign country is difficult for everybody. Forgive your mistakes and commend yourself for your effort. Hey, maybe your landlady will start knitting you an adorable pair of baby socks.

Ladies posing for a photo

Phase 8: Thank goodness for my colleagues.

Whether you’re the only intern working in a tiny organization or you’re one of 50 in a huge program, your colleagues will be your lifelines. Your first days are the best time to ask them a million questions. What’s in this soup? Should I flush the toilet paper? Does this rash look normal? These are all legitimate questions. The other employees in your organization have experienced the same challenges that you are now experiencing. Having amazing coworkers is a benefit of my internship abroad I hadn’t weighed seriously before. Other expats have dealt with the culture shock of living abroad and the local staff at your organization have great insight into how to adjust to living in their home country, so they will be your sage guides through the craziness of interning abroad.

Phase 9: Cue homesickness.

This phase may induce a strong desire to buy a plane ticket home and crawl into bed with your mom. Homesickness gets the best of all of us. It often hits at unexpected times, just when you feel like you’re starting to settle in and feel comfortable in your new internship. Maybe you meet someone from your home country or you hear a laugh that reminds you of your best friend. Getting homesick is totally normal; it just means you’re human like the rest of us. Resisting that temptation to check ticket prices for a quick trip home means you’re growing as a person. Being away from home is hard, but it fosters a sense of independence like no other experience. Plus all your friends back home think you’re a badass for going off on an adventure overseas.

Don’t get caught in the trap of wishing you were elsewhere; you might walk away with regrets or an experience not fully taken advantage of. You’re stronger than this!

Phase 10:   I can do this. But actually..

The final phase. You’ve made it! The first few days haven’t been easy, but you survived. You already feel more confident in yourself and know that you’ll make it through the whole internship without wimping out and running back home. At this point you’re under no illusion that this experience will be easy. It may be difficult at times, but that’s okay. You have a great support system in your colleagues and superiors, you have everyone back home rooting you on, and most importantly you have already proven to yourself that you have the guts and conviction to take on a new country and be a kicka$$ intern. Bring. It. On.

Don’t waste anytime, find an internship abroad that suits your career goals now!