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Should You Take an Unpaid Internship Abroad?

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Taking an unpaid internship can open doors formerly locked.
Taking an unpaid internship can open doors formerly locked.

Interning abroad - especially with the mindset of learning a new craft - can be an enriching cultural experience. Even when visiting a country with similar ideals to those at home, there can still be a broad amount of differences in the way of life. Foods will be cooked differently; shops and vendors will offer completely new products and clothes; transportation will be unfamiliar; and the culture will hold a new set of values.

Perhaps you're visiting a country that has a daily tea time (not to be confused with "tee time," which is quite common in the United States), or one that practices family-style meals, or one that considers work much less hectic than free time. In contrast, you may land in a country that takes their work frustratingly seriously. But no matter the cultural difference, it is safe to assume it will be a significant one.

Luckily though, "significant" doesn't (usually) mean "bad". These changes will simply allow you to view the world from a much broader perspective, teaching the big picture versus the here-and-now. Such an experience will shape the way you look at your work field in the future. By completing an internship, you have work experiences that you can apply in your career back home (although you may like your host country so much that you stay and get hired at a local company.)

However, while an overseas internship can be a wonderful and rewarding experience, they are not for everyone. You first need to decide if taking one on is the best move for yourself.

The Pros

The benefits can be enormous, particularly when going into a competitive field. An internship with any reputable company--overseas, to boot--is bound to bring any resume to the top of the list. Internships also provide ample, real-life work experience with established industry insiders. Rather than an entry-level position, where workers should already have certain skills, an internship is designed to teach higher-level skills. Oftentimes, interns will work directly with company executives and presidents in order to ensure the best possible learning experience. Even if you're asked to make coffee, you will still be in a reputable environment and have access to workplace information and professionals.

Interning abroad provides great networking opportunities.
Interning abroad provides great networking opportunities.

Another main highlight is that you will be learning overseas, which is an unrivaled opportunity in itself. You can learn about how different cultures do business and undoubtedly pick up several tips along the way.

If you're considering taking an unpaid internship overseas, the best decision-making factor is to evaluate what can be gained versus what will be lost. Depending on your specific field, taking said position can be a great career booster. However, others will opt to take a paying job to avoid accumulating too much debt before even graduating.

Furthermore, inquire into whether the internship offers college credit. If so, time spent at an internship can be marked as credit hours that you do not have to 1) pay for through tuition and 2) spend time earning through homework and studying.

The Cons

Obviously, the biggest obstacle is the money. When "unpaid" is right in the name, there's no wagering for salaries or stipends; no money will be exchanged. And because the internship is out of country, traveling and arrangement fees--passport, work visa, application fees, etc--can be expensive, let alone the cost of living on no pay. If you have a trust fund or a generous scholarship: great, start applying. If not, it is important to ensure that the benefits will outweigh the costs for you.

If the internship does not offer college credit, for instance, what you gain will be purely experience-based. In this case, it is best to sit down, look at the costs, and see if the internship will have been valuable once you're earning a consistent paycheck.

Ultimately, each student simply has to make the best decision to help them succeed and provide the best springboard into their professional career.


Photos courtesy of Samuel and Mann.

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