Shanghai, China is an international center of business.
When deciding whether to volunteer or intern abroad, there are many factors to consider. What type of person are you? Does structure and routine appeal to you, or would you prefer the unpredictable and unexpected? Are you looking to gain a leg up in your industry, or are you taking a break from traditional work altogether? Are the skills you'd like to learn things that would make you internationally competitive, and in what market? To put it crudely: which would you rather have on your resume?
Much has been written lauding volunteering, so here are six reasons to consider interning instead. [Because internships and volunteer positions often overlap, this article will compare the more distinct fields of corporate internships and community-immersive volunteering.]
#1. Internships often can be school or university-affiliated:
Many internships are designed specifically for high school or university students. These include credits for completing a certain number of hours, as well as work that directly correlates to a student's courses. Additionally, there are several options for combined intern and study abroad opportunities, in which the internship is embedded in the academic experience. In this case, internships allow students a taste of something extra-curricular, yet career oriented, without having to divert energy from their studies.
#2. Internships provide insight into future career paths:
Though volunteering might inspire a shift in career, many volunteers usually build on skills they have already developed or are presented with non-specific tasks to complete. On the other hand, internships teach students valuable industry-specific skills, an experience that cannot be replicated outside of a work environment. As such, this gives interns a clear and practical vision of working in a particular company or field, which might help influence class choices or club participation.
#3. Internships act as a "toe in the water:"
Those fresh out of college know how elusive full-time employment can be. With an unemployment rate of 9.1% (as of November 2011), even those with years of experience and a padded resume can find themselves out of work for months. To soften that blow, internships serve as an intermediary between theory-oriented university education and action-oriented workforce training, taking advantage of the post-graduation lull in employment. These internships also help new full-time workers choose--or at least narrow down--a career that more accurately matches their interests.
#4. Internships are more structured, specific, and verified:
The biggest criticism of voluntourism--short term volunteering as an alternative to traditional tourism--is that volunteer sending organizers fail to take the needs of the local community into consideration when placing volunteers. This lack of adequate planning can be detrimental to the very community one is trying to help, and can lessen the legitimacy of volunteering in general. Internships, on the other hand, are generally more structured and geared towards a particular goal--as an intern, your tasks and responsibilities, as well as position within the team, should be clearly defined from the start.
Furthermore, internships benefit from the structure of security. Because more volunteer opportunities--and thus, sending organizations--exist, it is sometimes difficult to sift through the thousands of volunteer abroad programs to find one that is reputed and trustworthy (of course, Go Overseas can help!). Internships tend to be held to higher standards, and as such, internship placement agencies and companies often arrange for more support and institutional vetting.
#5. Internships improve future work opportunity and benefits:
Yes, employers love to see that a potential hire has selflessly volunteered in a foreign country. But here's the big question: what workplace skills will you have learned? In most circumstances, the soft skills learnt though volunteering are not as useful as the acquired skills developed through industry-specific work. Working as an international intern gives you an insider's look into the nuts and bolts of foreign companies. This valuable insight will serve as a powerful advantage when you return to your home country. Plus, an internship shows you have work experience, even if it's for a very limited amount of time. You can parlay this into a higher position or a better set of benefits; the more you have to offer, the easier it will be to find a career that truly suits you.
#6. Internships do not always require fluency or even working knowledge of the local language:
Learning a new language can be a fun, but daunting, process, and not one at which everyone is particularly adept. For those stumble-tongues who can't roll their Rs or produce the guttural E, internships provide an environment in which fluency is not necessary to do good work. While volunteering can be enhanced multifold by the ability to communicate with the local people, interns have more support in their own language and are more likely to find positions that allow them to learn at their own pace, simply because foreign businesses are much more likely to be staffed with English speakers than local volunteering organizations. Of course, one should always try to pick up the native tongue--a visit to a foreign country is invaluably enriched by the ability to understand the subtlety and nuance of the spoken word!
Rest assured: choosing to go abroad in any capacity--whether it be to intern, volunteer, teach, or just travel--is already a significant decision that demonstrates your interest in learning about a new culture and foreign land. The advantage of interning abroad, however, is that in today's society, an internship can combine that worldly experience with tangible career-oriented skills. The result: a more educated, savvy citizen on the cutting edge of the global economy.
Time is of the essence! The following organizations provide a variety of internships that fit your interests and values. Find one you like and get on the path to interning abroad!
Adelante offers internships in Spain, Chile, Costa Rica, and Scotland
CRCC Asia offers internships and language programs throughout China
Panrimo offers internships in Argentina, Czech Republic, England, and Italy