Do your lousy international internship days consist of more bug bites than suntans, more time spent in an office than out exploring, and more waiting around than you’d even like to admit? Do you find yourself making comparisons more often than marveling at cultural differences, facing more inconveniences than opportunities, or longing for long work days to end in lieu of late nights out on the town?
Well, then maybe the problem isn’t your internship at all.
Maybe your internship is, after all, meant to challenge, develop, and require you to actually work. Maybe while you should have been researching the weather and cultural customs, you were picking out the perfect swimsuit for catching rays and cute Brazilian boys. Or when you could be understanding a new perspective, you are too stuck on your own agenda to adjust your attitude from entitled to grateful. Maybe, instead of a new international internship, you actually just need a new perspective.
Do Some Self Reflecting
If you think your international internship is a bust, the first step to first take is a hard look in the mirror. Before succumbing to pout-filled final internship days or throwing in the towel altogether, reflect on these three reasons why it might be your attitude, not your internship, that actually sucks.
You have unrealistic expectations.
If you didn’t enter into your international internship expecting to actually have to work, then you have already set yourself up to have a bad time. You are incredibly lucky to be carrying out your internship in an exciting new place, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you are there for the internship first. Likewise, your international internship is not meant to be easy. You should be spending time problem-solving off the clock or experiencing setbacks at times - that is how you learn, grow, and eventually succeed.
So if you find yourself constantly annoyed by the amount of work or distracted by your steadily accumulating list of activities and sights you wish you had time to pursue while abroad*, there is a good chance it is your unrealistic expectations that are contributing to your lack of internship satisfaction.
*Bonus tip: Consider tacking on extra time to the beginning (if it’s not too late) or end of your internship stint to allow for additional, proper exploration time.
You’re constantly making comparisons.
If you remain stuck doing things the way you’ve always done them, for no reason other than that it’s the way you have always done it, then you are defeating the purpose of your internship. The whole point of choosing an international internship is to learn new strategies and ways of viewing problems, and to gain insight into a broader perspective that only such a type of experience can warrant. If you waste your energy comparing to the internship your friend has (or worse yet, the more laidback, lame-job filled summer that your friends are rocking) instead of adapting and learning and making the most of your internship abroad, you will only become frustrated and burnt out by getting nowhere.
So if you can’t seem to let go of how you would face each scenario if you were “back home” in a “normal workplace” surrounded by your “preferred environment,” then it is your narrow-mindedness and lack of curiosity that is likely negatively affecting your view of your international internship.
You are experiencing culture shock.
If you are easily and personally offended by what you deem to be a lack of timeliness, professionalism, or fairness, I’d be willing to bet that your international internship and you are not friends. While punctuality is highly valued in most western cultures, the slower pace of life in many parts of the world finds it much less emphasized. And conversations that may seem rude and uncaring to you, or conversely unprofessional and unnecessarily inefficient, may actually be nothing more than the status quo of workplace communication in your host-country.
If you find you spend more of your international internship time getting riled up and offended than focusing on the task at hand, you might actually just be experiencing culture shock.
The need for a reality check, an attitude adjustment, and additional education are always a recipe for disaster, so if any or all of these three scenarios reflect the reality of your current situation, it’s no wonder your international internship is failing. The good news is, the first step is simply recognizing that you are the problem.
It’s time to fix it.
The next step is understanding that there is something you can do about it, and it’s never too late. Focus on taking these three steps and you may just find the new perspective that you need to salvage what’s left of your time abroad.
Recognize the reality of each situation and re-adjust your attitude.
Before even taking any action, all three of the above scenarios can be immediately improved by an increased awareness and positive attitude. When in the midst of an emotionally taxing situation, it can be easy to blow things out of proportion and lose the ability to step outside the situation and recognize the bigger picture. So simply start by acknowledging your past mistakes and misconceptions, attempting to understand instead of judge miscommunication, and then just decide to face each day with a smile.
Focus on small projects you can complete successfully.
If you are struggling with the work load or any number of outside stressors and distractions, it might be easy to become overwhelmed at what seems to be insurmountable expectations. So instead, simply taking it one step at a time. Focus only on what you need to do next. Collect the data. Perform the interview. Create the first draft of the design. Then you can focus on collaborating, interpreting, or completing for the next step. As you start to check one thing, then another, then another off the list you will slowly but surely cover ground and gain momentum and confidence along the way.
Consider having a thoughtful conversation with your supervisor to increase job satisfaction.
Maybe you did enter into your internship with unrealistic expectations and haven’t held back in making comparisons. And while it is vital to your own success and satisfaction to have an open mind anytime you enter the unknown, there also is no sense in building resentment if you have control to influence the situation in a positive manner. If you can have a respectful, unbiased, and well thought-out conversation with your supervisor to suggest specific ways you believe the internship experience could be improved, then by all means do so.
What if it’s not you that is the problem?
Even after some serious-self reflection and exhausted all of your mentorship resources, you may come to the conclusion that it is actually a problem that is much bigger than your approach or attitude towards it. This is rare, but in the off-chance that your internship is really not cracked up to even your lowest expectations, it might be time to hit the road.
Be sure to handle the experience professionally, so don’t just stop showing up to work. Speak directly with your supervisor and make sure your concerns are heard. Wrap up any loose strings that may be pertinent to your future (i.e. proof of employment or a record you might need to get credit for your internship). Speak with your academic advisor from your home university if it is relevant. Be sure to write reviews of your internship experiences online so that future students will not fall victim to an unproductive and unsatisfying professional experience abroad.
Pack your bags and head home; don’t chalk it up as a wasted experience. The process is still an incredible learning opportunity (not many students knows the joy from the empowerment felt from self-advocacy in the workplace!). Use your internship abroad as fuel for your next life experiences, you wise old owl, you.
Above all, try to remember that you are lucky to have this opportunity and that it is overall a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. So instead of letting each little inconvenience suck your energy, make the most of your time abroad. Besides, when you can control nothing else, you can always control your attitude and perspective towards it.