5 Things I’d Change About My International Internship

by Brooke Lake

Signing up for an international internship reads like a GREAT idea on paper. Not only do you add depth to your international experience, but it up’s your resume’s street cred. You can learn about your destination from an entirely unique point of view (one that’s not often afforded to travelers), gain work experience, AND cultivate more meaningful relationships with locals. But simply signing up for an international internship program isn’t the whoosh of a magic wand to instant career success that we’d all like to think.

Succeeding in an international workplace takes serious commitment, foresight, and patience.
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As I look back and reflect on my international work experiences, there are things I would change about it. While I certainly have no regrets, here’s what I’d do differently if I ever intern abroad again:

1. I’d Spend Less Time Choosing a Filter.

While connecting with friends and family via social media is on every intern’s mind abroad, don’t let it overshadow the fundamental reasons you packed your bags and boarded that plane. Yes, devising how you can make all your homeland dwellers jealous with the latest and greatest profile picture in a foreign country can be momentarily entertaining, but bear in mind that your time abroad is limited so make it count. I wish I would have spent less time editing my photo albums on Facebook, and spent more time looking out the window, taking walks, and striking up conversations with the actual people around me.

Like many, I preferred spending a good amount of time alone. I would take my breaks by myself and be consumed with my phone while on public transportation. In retrospect, I should have spent that time conversing with colleagues and meeting new people. There is a time to use your phone and there is a time to participate socially. Striking a balance between ‘me time’ and interacting with the community can be a struggle coming from a culture where independence is of the utmost importance. The most meaningful internship abroad requires less time thinking about yourself and maximizing the amount of quality time spent with the people physically around you.

2. I’d Readjust My Expectations.

Expect the unexpected because you’re not in Kansas anymore. Accept that as soon as you step foot onto your departure flight to Jordan, South Korea or wherever the gods of internship have called you that anything can happen. Rest assured, you will not come back the same person. Indubitably, you are an accumulation of your past experiences. Understanding the concept of relativity is the difference between feeling frustrated to the point of isolation and overcoming the inevitable culture shock. So, expect to be confused, especially in the initial stages. Do not expect to have impeccable wifi every waking moment, or to understand why that child on the bus is staring at you as if there is a booger hanging out of your nose.

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Life will not operate on the same standards you have previously been granted in America. From the get go I should have removed certain vocabulary from my day to day vernacular such as describing something I see as being “weird” and replacing it with “different”. Little changes as to how I chose to articulate my feelings and perceptions would have made a world of difference in terms of my attitude while in country and subsequently my professional success. I now know that the more I fought the realities of my life while interning in Morocco was proportional to the amount of peace and understanding I experienced. As cliche as it sounds, I have adopted a motto of ‘it is what it is’.

3. I’d Come More Prepared.

If you want to land a job internationally after completing your internship, it is in your best interest to nurture your professional relationships while abroad. This means making yourself memorable in the best sort of way by writing thank you notes, maintaining a positive attitude while at work, asking for more responsibilities, and letting your professional intentions for the future be known.

I collected a bouquet of business cards from professionals working at embassies, consulates, NGOs, and international companies, to which I wished I had something to hand them in return besides a handshake and a verbal introduction. I wished I had had printed business cards which demonstrated my Arabic language skills prior to embarking. I can only imagine the opportunities that might have come had I been wise enough to do this.

Actively seek opportunities to network with your colleagues or other professionals in your field of choice. Networking can seem scary at first; but what have you got to lose? I wish I had been more brave and proactive in this arena - even if it’s asking a coworker to join you for lunch or a quick walk to the nearby coffee shop. Making contacts (and creating memorable relationships with them) can only benefit you in the long run - especially if you are considering moving back for more full time employment opportunities.

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4. I’d Complain Less.

Oh, how easy it is to become a negative Nancy when the work environment doesn’t quite match up to the good ol’ days of workin’ in your home country! Reality check: it’s call an internship abroad. Beginnings at a new work environment come with a legion of emotions and questions, especially when it comes to international jobs.

As an American interning in the Middle East, I experienced over-the-top glee, confusion, more excitement, and then even more confusion. There were times I didn’t understand an ounce of what was trying to be conveyed to me through language from my colleagues and patients. I was a smorgasbord of emotions and sometimes I let the strangeness overwhelm me to the point where all I felt like I could do to remedy my bewilderment was complain.

However, complaining can have a snowball effect on your overall outlook and job performance, as well as physical and mental health. It is absolutely necessary to find ways to cope with the gaps in cultural differences when interning abroad. If I invented a time machine machine and could redo my internships I would replace every complaint with a question. Revel in all that is new and watch that confusion morph into an interesting adventure.

5. I’d Do My Research.

The best resource for obtaining useful information about a future internships are reviews from past interns. Instead of simply acquiescing to the list of internships your college advisors place before you, conduct your own independent research. Search websites, like GoAbroad, to find up-to-date, impartial information from REAL participants, as well as get a feel for all the options that are out there. Read more real life advice from other students, like questions to ask before interning abroad.

Other useful research resources include online expat forums. I highly suggest to my fellow or future interns abroad to utilize this vat of knowledge. Often times you can get the inside scoop and advice to rock that internship with cultural grace.

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We stand on the shoulders of giants. This is no exception when it comes to living and working in a new country. Expats are typically eager to share their experiences online. From which companies try to scam their employees, to who has the best reputation for job offers post internship, expats who have lived in country previously stockpiled a wealth of knowledge which is only a click away. Had I tapped into this electronic wisdom early on I surely would have spent less time wondering about visa regulations and more time focusing on how to be the best intern that ever lived.

Learn from my veteran experiences to better prepare yourself for your internship abroad. Armed with this knowledge (and general workplace savvy), you’re bound to succeed not only at short term internships abroad, but also beyond!