In 2020, as pandemic restrictions shut down travel and people around the world began working remotely, international internships also moved online. Whether learning the workings of a diplomatic mission or conducting market research for a multinational technology firm, placements that once required a passport became available virtually.
Beyond the skills that you can develop through an internship in your home city, international internships come with the added benefits of developing strong intercultural skills and wider global professional networks.
But what are the pros and cons of remote internships for people looking for international or intercultural experiences? And how do they differ from in-person placements?
Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of a virtual international internship experience.
Why consider a remote internship?
“There are a lot of barriers [to traditional internships]: time, cost, logistics, visas—and now, health,” says Daniel Nivern, CEO of Virtual Internships.
Nivern would know. Prior to establishing Virtual Internships, he was the co-founder of CRCC Asia, an organization that placed individuals at internships in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Yet, even pre-pandemic, his team began wondering whether technology had evolved to the point where they could offer similar placements remotely.
In 2018, they set up Virtual Internships to reach a broader pool of potential interns, and mirror what they saw as the increasingly virtual future of international work. Although they originally envisioned partnering primarily with for-profit businesses—similar to the companies CRCC Asia worked with—working remotely has allowed them to run programs with a far wider scope. Today, Virtual Internships works with 4,000 companies in 70 different countries, including developing virtual internships for students with learning disabilities with Mencap, a UK-based charity, and working with KIRON, an organization that supports student refugees in the Middle East.
“[Virtual internships] open the doors to many more people, like non-traditional students or stay-at-home parents,” says Tom Millington, executive director of Abroadia, an organization that offers study abroad and internship programs across Latin America.
Individuals with family responsibilities or other barriers to travel may find it easier to participate in a virtual placement. Remote experiences also benefit those without much travel experience, by building their confidence and improving language skills, without full-on immersion in a new culture.
Dr. Breanne Tcheng, global internships program coordinator at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. “Virtual programs provide much more accessibility for students,” says Tcheng. She notes that not only are virtual programs more affordable, but they are also available to a wider range of individuals. “Passports and visas are no longer a barrier for students.”
Finding a reputable virtual internship
Jillian Low, chief academic officer at Virtual Internships, advises that an internship should provide interns with three key elements: professional experience, feedback on their work, and a network of contacts.
“Any time a student is vetting an opportunity, they need to say, ‘How are my three benefits getting enhanced?’” she says.
While you can set up your own virtual internship, working with a university placement program or internship provider can simplify the process, since these organizations offer a selection of opportunities to choose from. They also typically provide orientation to help prepare you for a placement, cultural or educational training during the internship, and resources to support you if you encounter problems during your program.
Placements should provide interns with three key elements: professional experience, feedback on their work and a network of contacts.
But regardless of whether you arrange an internship independently or through a provider, do your own research. A program with a snazzy website may not live up to its shiny virtual image.
“Make sure that what is being shown to you online is actually the truth,” says Daniele Cosentino, Thailand-based CEO of Asia Internship Program, which matches interns with companies across Asia.
Check that both the internship provider and the company you’re considering have experience with remote programs. Ask to speak with others who’ve interned with the company. Look at the CEO’s LinkedIn profile to ensure that they have a reasonable number of connections.
If the placement is with a company in a different time zone, ask what your schedule will look like, suggests Léa Gruyelle, administrative assistant at Montreal-based McGill International Internship Network. Find out when and how often you’d meet with your supervisor, and whether the time difference would allow you to participate in virtual events.
Managing a remote internship
In any internship, “a student is getting adjusted to a whole new culture—and that is a professional culture,” says Low.
While interns may focus on their placement’s international aspects, adjusting to the work environment itself is equally important. It’s critical to treat a remote experience with the same level of professionalism as you’d approach an in-person position. In other words, don’t Zoom from your bed.
However, Tcheng says that in virtual internships, the number one issue interns encounter is not being given enough responsibilities or challenges, which requires them to advocate for themselves and be proactive. For example, she suggests approaching supervisors with suggestions or questions such as: “Hey, I noticed this problem, and this would be a really great solution,” or “I was fascinated by this aspect of your organization and I’d like to learn more.” It may also be beneficial to tell supervisors what you’re enjoying and suggests ways you might contribute.
“Supervisors are also trying to get to know you and your skills,” says Tcheng.
When interning remotely, the work that you're completing may not happen when your host company or supervisor is online. As such, you need to be comfortable working alone, deciding when to start and stop work, how much time to allocate to particular projects, and how to structure your internship around responsibilities you have at home.
Gruyelle also encourages participants to set aside time for rest and reflection.
“Writing down what you did today and then going for a walk is part of doing well. It’s not just staying in front of your computer all day,” she says. Reflecting on what you’re learning and how things are going also helps identify issues while there’s still time to correct them.
Improving virtual communications and relationships
Interns need to adapt to the company’s communications style, says Low, which may be professional, structured, and formal, or more casual and freer-flowing, with regular banter on Slack. Likewise, interns will need to adopt the communications technologies of the country where they’re placed; often WhatsApp in Europe and Africa, WeChat in China, and Zoom or Microsoft Teams in the US and Canada. You should have alternative ways to communicate, so you can text or phone your supervisor if your Internet goes down.
Virtual communication can be more subtle than in-person interactions and can vary from culture to culture. While 2021 research from the University of California, Berkeley finds that many facial expressions are culturally universal, how they're perceived may not be. For example, Japanese coworkers may feel it’s inappropriate to display emotion openly, while colleagues in the Philippines may think that expressing your emotions openly is a sign of honesty. Misinterpreting these physical cues may cause you to miss the nuance of what the other person is saying.
“Now that we're all doing everything digitally, we still have to be cognizant of people's facial expressions or gestures,” says Millington, who recommends that anyone working virtually read the book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance by Erica Dhawan.
Remember that when you’re working remotely, it takes extra effort to learn about the day-to-day workings of an office, since you’re not seeing what happens outside of your Zoom calls. If you’re working in a diplomatic mission, for example, says Gruyelle, you want to learn how people interact in building and managing diplomatic relationships. Ask questions to help you understand what happens after meetings and how people keep their conversations going.
Networking may be more difficult in a virtual environment, too, since you lose out on informal hallway chats. Gruyelle recommends that interns email colleagues to request 15-minute virtual informational interviews or casual coffee meetups. Establishing these connections during a placement make it easier to maintain relationships once the internship has ended, whether through email, ongoing Zoom chats or simply staying connected via social media.
Navigating difficult situations
“Cyber-bullying and digital harassment is a real thing,” says Nivern. That’s why Virtual Internships requires that both host companies and interns sign a code of conduct defining acceptable behaviour. They also require that each company has a certain number of staff per intern, to keep interns from being isolated or placed in situations where they might be more easily targeted.
Awkward situations can also arise because of differences in cultural norms. In some cultures, for example, it’s normal to greet one another by kissing each other on the cheek. Similar issues can arise in the virtual space, often as personal questions that interns may find inappropriate, such as inquiring about family income or marital status. Interns should learn to distinguish culturally appropriate actions from unacceptable behaviour.
Many internship programs have staff who can counsel interns dealing with these challenges. And while the safety and comfort of interns is the priority, Tcheng suggests navigating these situations can even be a learning opportunity.
“If [interns] feel inclined to engage, it can be a fruitful learning experience by approaching the situation with curiosity, understanding more of where that comment came from, and then sharing your perspective,” she says.
Are remote internships here to stay?
“Let's be honest,” says Cosentino, “we all want to go back to going abroad, meeting people, new cultures, and everything that comes with it.”
But he and others in the internship field agree that the world has changed. “For better or worse, the days flying to China for a few meetings are over,” Nivern says.
“We are likely going to carry forward with both virtual and in-person options,” Tcheng predicts. “COVID has shaped the working world to be more tech-literate, so we need to prepare our next generation of leaders to have those skills.”
Whether you’re interning internationally or from your laptop at home, Tcheng reminds students and job seekers that it’s just part of the path to future professional success.
“An internship will not be their dream job,” she says.” If they look at their internship as a stepping stone along their career path, they'll come away from the experience a lot happier and more satisfied.”Add this article to your reading list