International Internships: What's Your Return On Investment?

Landing an international internship takes initiative—but in a global economy, the payoff is huge.

To say that study abroad has grown in the last decade here in North America would be a vast understatement. Over the past 10 years in the U.S., the number of undergraduates studying overseas has increased by over 65 per cent. Within this trending “ed abroad” culture, academic internships and service-learning opportunities are becoming an important feature in a student’s overseas education.

As Director of an International Programs Office, I find students increasingly inquiring about programs that offer experiential “work” or “volunteer” options. But why this recent interest in international internships and what benefits—if at all—do they afford students studying overseas?

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of the internship abroad—and why it has gained such popularity—is that it enables a student to develop transferable skill sets that resonate with today’s “global” employers.

As economist Thomas Friedman reminds us, the “flat” world in which we now live makes it essential for corporations and its employees to operate on a transnational level. And studies have shown that “biculturals”—individuals who identify as belonging to more than one culture—consistently display enhanced creativity and professional success when compared to their “monocultural” colleagues.

As an overseas intern, you will be stepping outside the proverbial North American “bubble” and brushing shoulders with local colleagues on a weekly basis.

In a recent industry-wide poll, managers and directors ranked the ability to problem-solve and successfully communicate as the most important skills when hiring recent college graduates. Whether it’s number crunching for a financial firm in London’s Canary Wharf or serving as a project coordinator for a youth community centre in Cape Town, an internship abroad can help foster many of these abilities in an international capacity.

As an overseas intern, you will be stepping outside the proverbial North American “bubble” and brushing shoulders with local colleagues on a weekly basis. You will also have the opportunity to cultivate your intercultural competency by becoming familiar with foreign workplace customs and culture and by enhancing your language skills. And, upon the successful completion of an internship abroad, your former supervisor and co-workers will add a strong international pedigree to that coveted “List of References” for future job applications.

The fundamentals

The model of the international internship has shifted in recent years, much to the benefit of the student. A generation ago, a student organizing a not-for-credit international internship was responsible for arranging most everything. Now, education abroad providers and foreign universities facilitate much of this process. A prospective international intern can expect overseas faculty and staff to assess his or her application, resumé, cover letter and references, and place the intern with a local organization, company, or NGO that aligns with the student’s professional goals and interests.

The number of hours per week an intern spends on the job will vary considerably, depending on industry and visa restrictions, but it’s typically between 10 and 20 hours per week – often equating to three to six academic credits.

These programs entail more than just “showing up to work,” however. They often require that interns participate in an academic seminar to help them reflect on and understand the experience in terms of local organizational behaviour and workplace culture.

Many of these seminars require the student to compile an internship portfolio, a powerful tool that can yield dividends when applying to future jobs or graduate school. Another advantage is that an overseas internship can satisfy the “experiential” (or internship) component of your home university’s core curriculum while, at the same time, fulfilling elective credits within your major.

Currency vs. credits

I often hear students ask, “But how much does an internship abroad pay?” The answer to this question is complicated and, more often than not, students receive academic credit with no monetary compensation.

Many of the countries in which North Americans study abroad—Spain, for instance—suffer from high youth unemployment, which heavily restricts the pay international students can receive. Depending on your destination, visa regulations often dictate that overseas internships are carried out on a part-time basis. This means that an average semester abroad will comprise a “hybrid” of two or three courses, combined with a part-time internship.

It is important to note that internships abroad do not resonate with all academic programs. Dependent on the program and location of study, some students may find it difficult to fulfill their clinical and practicum requirements overseas due to federal regulations—for example, those who are studying medicine or education. Nevertheless, these students can attain some cross-cultural exposure in their respective major by interning in an administrative capacity at an Argentine hospital, for instance, or serving as a teacher’s aide in a German gymnasium, or high school.

How to get started

There are plenty of resources available for those interested in an overseas academic internship. As a university student, your study abroad office and career centre will be the best place to start investigating prospective work and volunteer opportunities. I would also recommend consulting the online resources of program providers that facilitate international internships—such as API, CAPA, AIESEC, and CIEE to name a few—where you can customize your search based on geographic and industrial preferences. It is important, however, to confirm that your internship program has the full blessing of your home university prior to departure.

The study abroad paradigm is changing rapidly and the traditional semester of enrolling strictly in content courses at an overseas university is becoming a thing of the past. The internship abroad—with the proper academic oversight—can translate into a powerful experience that integrates a student into his or her host environment while developing tangible skill sets that are relevant to an increasingly global economy.

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Published in Work Abroad
Joseph Stanley

Dr. Joseph Stanley is the Director of International Programs at Simmons College (Boston, MA) and can be reached at [email protected].

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