Challenges and Strategies for Success in an International Internship
Interning abroad has its benefits: you develop professional skills, open yourself up to new job opportunities, gain new perspectives, learn about the world, and grow immensely as a person. However, working abroad isn’t without its challenges, and making the most of your internship abroad can sometimes be difficult. Not only are you starting a new job, but you are also thrown into entirely unfamiliar professional and societal environments.
The challenges posed by international internships may not be what you expected; however, by equipping yourself with the right strategies to face these challenges head on, you can make the most of your international internship and reap all the benefits you hoped for.
The Challenge: Settling Into Your New Role
The first week or two of your new internship is often an indicator of the pace of the job and expectations for the role, but it’s also an opportunity for you to make a lasting impression and set the tone for your involvement. However, not all organizations will have formalized orientations, a clear role description, or a list of expected deliverables.
Here are some tips for starting off on the right foot:
- Gain a sense of belonging right from the start. Introduce yourself to everyone in the office and get to know your fellow staff. Request an office tour if not already provided.
- Familiarize yourself with the organization and your role. Read up on anything you can get your hands on (e.g. publications, project proposals/plans, newsletters, reports, social media activity, etc.), shadow staff and ask them about their projects, and attend as many meetings as you can (you can volunteer to take notes).
- Take notes as you learn more about the organization. You’ll want to identify gaps and areas where you can contribute your skills.
- Co-create a work plan with your supervisor if one is not already provided. Provide a list of your skills and potential projects you can work on as a starting point (you can continue to add to this list throughout the internship).
- Demonstrate your capabilities and professional interests to your supervisor and colleagues. Look for opportunities to showcase your skills and work ethic whenever possible. This will set the tone for the types of projects and tasks that will be entrusted to you.
- Do your research. Read up on the work culture ahead of time and prepare/act accordingly.
The Challenge: Sitting Around, Twiddling Your Thumbs
The organizational structure, culture, or timing of your placement could affect your experience and, as an intern, you may find yourself sitting idle without much to do. This can be a frustrating experience, but there are a number of things you can do to take initiative and contribute to the organization.
Here are some tips for finding things to do when things are slow:
- Think inside of and outside of the box. You can review existing programs, communications (such as their website and social media activity), and processes. You can also consider initiating creative projects to add value to the organization.
- Be open and say yes to what is asked of you, even if they seem like menial tasks. Gaining experience in any capacity will be helpful for you career, as even seemingly unrelated tasks help to develop transferable skills. This is often the reality of internships around the world. However, this isn’t to say that you should only be doing ‘boring’ tasks.
- Be communicative with your supervisor. You can suggest weekly check-ins to show them what you have completed, what you have to offer, and to stay up to date on ongoing/future tasks.
- Think about your hard and soft skills and determine which areas of your internship could push you to improve these skills. For example, if you want to improve your research skills, you could suggest assisting a colleague in researching new community partners. If you want to improve your ability to accept criticism, make a point of asking your supervisor for consistent feedback.
- If you want to demonstrate your skills, create a sample of what you could contribute and present it to a supervisor. This will make them more confident in assigning you related tasks.
- If your supervisor has nothing for you to do or is not available, try asking other colleagues if they need assistance.
The Challenge: Why Am I Here?
When interning or volunteering abroad, it’s always vital to reflect on the impact we would have in our new environments. For example, you should ask yourself these four questions before going abroad.
During your internship, you may find yourself wondering whether it’s the best option for an organization to hire a foreign intern for specific roles. This is especially prevalent with internships involving work with non-English speakers (unless you also speak their native language) and jobs that don’t require higher education or formal certification. Sometimes, you may find that only some elements of your internship are challenging in this regard.
As long as you are interning responsibly, here are some ways to mitigate this ‘imposter complex’:
- Connect your work to your own personal experiences and skills beyond the expectations of the role. For example, a facilitator who needs to be translated may find themselves asking the “why am I here?” question. However, they can go beyond the curriculum by adding in their own experiences (such as relevant examples or stories) or facilitation tactics to improve the audience’s experience. Collaborate with your supervisor to see how you can make this work!
- Create unique sustainable value. This means going above and beyond and using your skills to create meaningful, high-level additions or changes to the organization that can be sustained even after you leave. This isn’t always possible as an intern, but if you have the relevant experience and skills to make it happen, do it!
Interning abroad has its challenges, and adjusting to a new workplace in a foreign country isn’t always easy. Ultimately, our advice boils down to three main points: take initiative, be open to embracing the challenges and differences, and create a sense of ownership by adding your own value and exceeding expectations.
We wish you the best for your international internship. We’re certain that your hard work abroad will take you places (pun intended)!
If you're looking for a meaningful international internship opportunity, check out the Semester in Development programs with Insight Global Education.