Border Crossing: Landing an Internship Abroad

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Posted by Emily Callaghan on September 19, 2011
Border Crossing: Landing an Internship Abroad

There’s no denying an internship spent writing grant proposals in a Parisian cafe or learning the ropes of the Asian banking system on the 40th floor of a Tokyo high-rise has a certain romantic allure. But don’t think of such prospects as just flights of fancy. From a summer analyst position at a Brazilian investment bank to an environmental conservation internship with a Bangladeshi nonprofit, opportunities for interning in a foreign land exist and are attainable.

In fact, nearly 20,000 U.S. students interned abroad for credit during the 2008–09 academic year, according to a study by the Institute of International Education—and that doesn’t account for the thousands of young people who secured noncredit internships.

The key to making it happen, though, is overcoming the mental and physical barriers that hinder many students from seeking an overseas internship. A willingness to step out of your comfort zone is a must. The good news for you and your career is that completing an internship abroad has incredible built-in rewards.

“Companies are desperately seeking people who have cross-cultural competency,”says Paula Caligiuri, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey professor and author of Get a Life, Not a Job.

We’re not just talking international and multinational corporations: Local firms value international experience, too. “The U.S. demographics are changing,” says Kelly Cleary, senior associate director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania. “College grads who understand that their customers or their clients might come from a different background than their own have an important skill set.”

We’ve taken what may seem like a daunting process and broken it down into bite-sized tips for getting your feet wet in foreign waters.

Take Inventory
Some students simply want to be in London, and they don’t really care what they’re doing.” says Cleary. “Others know they want to gain a strong understanding of the Asian financial markets, or to work in international development in India.”

We recommend being as specific as possible. By taking a moment to determine what your objectives are, you’re far more likely to get what you want out of any internship.

Start by considering your motives for interning abroad: Do you see this experience as a way to hone specific work-related skills or more as a cultural immersion? Next, consider your level of comfort with risk: How far out of your comfort zone are you willing to step? Would you be okay with going to a country where you don’t know the language or do you need to be somewhat competent with the native tongue? Similarly, how risk averse you are will determine whether you target a Westernized, democratic nation, or a country with an unstable government, or a country where women don’t enjoy equal rights. Each experience can yield its own benefits, but only one might be right for you. Your preference here will narrow things down quite a bit.

Finally, think about the level of structure you require when pursuing an internship. Finding an internship on your own (see the “Go Guerrilla” section below), for example, might not be the best fit for those who crave certainty and structure. In that case, an established internship coordinated through your university’s career center might be the path for you.

By fleshing out your objectives, you should be able to narrow your search down to two or three countries. Further, consider the feasibility of each: Do you have friends or family living abroad? Do you have background knowledge of a specific country through your studies? Is there a special skill you can hone only in one particular country or region?

Tap Your Network
Once you sort out the wheres and whys, it’s a matter of finding an internship that suits your wishes. Your first stop should probably be your college’s career center. Find out what prerequisites are required to participate in school-sanctioned internships (Spanish 1? French 3? Politics of the Middle East?). Do any applicable grants or school-sponsored placement programs exist? Inquire about the Web-based resources and databases your school subscribes to, such as GoinGlobal or UniWorld, that offer comprehensive job listings and country guides. GoinGlobal’s country guides, for example, list top employers, local nonprofits, visa regulations, and tips for writing a CV.

Don’t hesitate to tap into the academic community’s powerful networking potential: Research professors who have done research or have private-sector connections overseas. Find out where alumni are living and working or see if the career center can provide names of students who have recently interned abroad.  “Alumni, whether they’re an expat or someone who has gone back to their home country after studying in the U.S., might be willing to place an intern, talk to their friends about placing one, or can simply give advice,” says Penn’s Cleary. “Whether you’re in Mumbai or San Juan, it helps to have people on the ground.”

Go Guerrilla
If risk isn’t a four-letter word in your book, consider taking the search into your own hands. While some opportunities can be found by browsing listings—from the local Craigslist to Idealist.org—many fruitful opportunities can be created by forging your own connections. “Part of it is finding out where the resources are,” says Cleary.

In many cases, the right contact is within reach but out of sight. For example, there’s a good chance the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an association devoted to the economic interests of your target country. Through the American Chamber of Commerce of Argentina, you can find job listings and a place to post your resume or CV. On the flip side, the American-Argentine Chamber of Commerce, for example, located in the U.S., provides similar listings, including committee members (perfect points of contact) and country data. Because the mission of these organizations is to promote trade and investment between any two countries, you’ll find they’re eager to help.

If you find an employer that looks like a good fit but that doesn’t have an established internship program, pitch the idea for your internship anyway. Be sure to explain your citizenship and work status in that country, ability to relocate, pertinent language or technical skills, preferred work department, and time frame, in addition to attaching your resume or CV. If you have a contact through alumni, faculty, or a connection you’ve noticed on LinkedIn, use it.

Pay-to-Go Programs
It may seem counter-intuitive to spend money so you can offer your precious time, but if you look at all related costs and consider the hours you’d devote to researching and arranging logistics, the program’s fee might be worth it. Plus, a reputable placement service will give you the piece of mind knowing you’ll be working for a vetted company. “The student really needs to do their homework and find out where exactly those expenses are going to,” says Cleary. “Ask for the breakdown: Is housing or transportation included? Is insurance included?”

Not all placement programs are alike. “I know of [programs] that charge students thousands of dollars for an experience that they could easily create on their own,” says Cleary. Also, keep in mind that some of these programs can end up feeling like a school field trip, where your spend work and nonwork hours with other Americans in the program. “Certainly there will be cultural differences and opportunities to learn by working together,” says Rutgers’ Caligiuri. But you might not have quite the enriching experience you would if you were the only American intern in the office.

Make it Count
In many places outside the U.S. the term internship is as foreign as the students who want to do them. Similar stints of work experience are known as
traineeships or practicums, but the concept doesn’t always translate, especially at smaller, regional firms. “Honestly, they didn’t know what to do with me,” says Tony Vosmandros, a student who spent a semester interning in Greece. “They were almost afraid to delegate their work.”

To ensure an enriching experience, students should get the job description, development plan, and their employers’ expectations on paper before they set sail, says Penn’s Cleary. “Students really need to advocate for themselves. What is the student expecting from the supervisor? Is there a clear mentorship program in place? If not, that’s something a student should request to ensure that they’re successful.”

While most any experience overseas will inevitably foster personal and professional growth, the extent to which this happens is ultimately up to you. For instance, working for a major multinational corporation has benefits and drawbacks. On the upside, it will likely provide structured work environment where managers understand the point—and the value—of an internship. You’ll also have a better shot at parlaying your internship into a full-time job after graduation—overseas or on U.S. soil.

On the other hand, when working with a slew of fellow nationals at a large, American-based firm, interns run the risk of experiencing more of the corporation’s culture than that of the country. “You can live and work in another country and still be in a big bubble,” says Rutgers’ Caligiuri. It’s easy to fall into what is essentially a domestic experience that happens to take place overseas.

But you’re there to experience other cultures firsthand, so it’s important to put yourself out there: Don’t eat in your company’s cafeteria every day. Ask your non-American colleagues to get a drink after work. Join a club that will allow you to interact with people from that country. “The more local you can get,” Caligiuri says, “the better.”

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