What to Do on the First Day of Your Internship Abroad


Updated June 19th, 2015

First things first: congratulations! You scored an internship abroad! You have no idea (okay, you probably have some idea) how many people applied for that position, and you got it! This is a big deal, and, you wouldn't want to flub it all up on your first day of work, right?

Come day two, you’re gonna have a much better idea of what to expect, but that first day is gonna be stressful.

Without a doubt, you're got a few worries about your first day of your internship in another country. Will you mesh with the people you’re working with? Until now you’ve probably only really spoken to them in a professional interview context -- what about when you’re standing next to the water cooler (or tea kettle)? And what happens when somebody you don’t know asks you for help on something you’ve never done before?

Come day two, you'll have a much better idea of what to expect, but that first day will be stressful. Minimize that by knowing what to do on the first day of your internship abroad.

Read Up on Cultural Etiquette Beforehand

Republic of Georgia

Before you even show up for your first day, make sure you read up on business etiquette in your host country. After all, you wouldn't want to blow it on day one of your internship in Shanghai by neglecting the Chinese custom of "saving face" and pointing out that your boss is wrong about something, or by wearing a bright red blazer to your internship in France.

To get you started, Go Overseas has some articles on business etiquette in China.

Show Up A Little Early

It's always a good idea to show up a few minutes early before your first day of your new job -- just don't overdo it. If you show up a full hour before your internship, your supervisor might not even be in yet, or totally unprepared to receive you!

Again, reading up on the cultural etiquette will help you judge this, but in some cultures "on time" is a lax concept. For an internship in, say, Senegal, you could end up sitting around for an hour if you show up too early.

Give Your Commute a Test Run

Especially when you're living in a foreign city with a foreign public transportation system (maybe you've never even taken a subway before!), make sure you give your commute a test run the day before and know what to expect.

If at all possible, give your commute a test run on a week day. If you go to your office on a Sunday, you might not end up taking the same train or bus that you would on a Monday -- since most transit systems have separate weekend and weekday hours.

Set Realistic Expectations

It’s good to be excited, obviously, but don't let this overshadow what your internship will actually be like. Expectations breed resentment when they don’t pan out in reality.

Obviously, your new job is going to be amazing. You’re going to love it. You’re living abroad, for Peet's sake! But remember, this isn’t your usual trip abroad. It’s not a gap year. And it's not a backpacking trip. You’re there to work, and people are going to expect you to get that work done both on time and on point.

Going in with realistic expectations about your new life will help you stay excited past the first day, and help your coworkers see that they made the best possible choice for filling the position.

Study Up on the Language

While you're at it, learning about the dos and don't's in the workplace of your host country, study up on the language as well (if you're interning in a non-English speaking country, obviously). Make sure you have any important vocabulary related to your internship hammered down, or written down in a small notebook you can easily carry with you.

Not only will it show that you're taking this seriously, but it will make your co-workers more comfortable with your less than perfect language skills.

Once you're there, use that notebook to jot down any words you hear and don't understand. If you can get a translation or explanation from someone, jot that down too! Not only will it show that you're taking this seriously, but it will make your co-workers more comfortable with your less than perfect language skills. You're making an effort, and, we assume, going home and memorizing those new words and phrases so you won't have to ask for an explanation again later.

Follow Your Co-Worker's Cues

On your first day in your new internship, you should be a sponge. Watch what people are doing around you and imitate it. It’s not just the most sincere form of flattery -- it’s the best way to get acquainted with not only the people in your workplace, the work culture of your host country, but your new home in general. If you’re observant, you can get to know your workplace without speaking a word to anybody. Not that you’d want to though. Some things to watch out for:

  • Language: Do people all speak the same language? Or are they comfortable using their native tongues? Interning abroad with a language barrier will be difficult to overcome, but if people are comfortable switching languages, they’ll be willing to help explain things to you. The person who switches tongues a lot is probably the one you’ll want to ask for help.

  • Dress code: Work culture isn’t defined by how people dress, but you better believe how people dress is defined by the work culture. So, don't be afraid to ask in advance what the general dress code for your internship is to pick out the right outfit for day one. Then, use your first day to observe how others dress, and take your cues from there.

  • Desks: If you have your own desk, look at what other people keep on their own. It’s the same concept as the dress code: a Spartan desk may be more professional. Keep in mind that different people treat their work differently.

  • Donuts: You’ve seen it in all the sitcoms -- bringing donuts (or whatever local baked good is popular) into the office never made a single enemy.

Remember That You're There to Work and Learn

Shanghai Skyline

You're an intern. You're there to learn. Even though no one is expecting you to be 100% competent at your tasks on day one (which will likely be focused on training you anyway), they don't want to hear that you're not willing to try and get there.

If you don’t know how to do something, let them know you're willing to do it, but you may need some instruction. Even if your supervisor decides the project is too important or time-sensitive to let you work out your kinks on it, they’ll remember your willingness for next time.

Show them that you're committed to being a part of the team and take your role seriously.

In the end, you’ve got one chance to make one first impression that lasts through the rest of your internship. Don’t let people think you’re the wide-eyed intern who doesn’t hustle, or just some lazy kid who came here for the allure of living abroad, and, oh yeah, kind of do this intern thing. Show them that you're committed to being a part of the team and take your role seriously.

Get to Know Your Coworkers

Every company and organization has its go-to restaurant and bar to check out after a long day’s work. It’s where you go to unwind and chat about things you might not be able to in a more… let’s call it “professional” atmosphere. You may not want to go after such a long day, but come on. Don’t miss this opportunity to get to know the people you'll be spending the majority of your waking hours with.

Even if it's a challenge, make this attempt. We know that it’s difficult enough to breach that barrier of professionalism and connect as friends, even when you’re all speaking the same native language. Abroad, it may be even harder to find things to talk about (though, we're certain you're bursting with questions about your host culture by this point!) and make friends.

eating sushi in Japan

Also, here’s where everything you’ve done all day comes together. After kicking butt for eight hours straight, you’ve got that foundation of mutual respect for each others’ work ethic, and a bevy of things to talk about. And from there, it’s a nice little springboard into everything you’ve wanted to talk about all day: Namely how excited you are to be working in their country.

Express how curious you are about life here. What you’re looking forward to doing while you’re abroad. Ask for their suggestions and advice about must-visit places and must-try foods. Now, all that excitement you stymied going into the workday can flow out and, hopefully, get you a new friend or two!

Add in the beers your impressed coworkers will surely be buying you, and you’ve got a good recipe for a good time. Remember not to babble -- you should want to know about these people as much as they’ll want to know about you. Ask questions. The workday is only half of rocking your first day. Setting up your office friendships takes more than putting in your eight hours, but it’s just as important.

Go to Bed with the Intention of Doing the Same Thing Tomorrow

When you get home from hanging out with your coworkers, get into your comfiest pajamas. Drink some water to head off that hangover at the pass. Get in bed. Be prepared to work just as hard tomorrow as you did today.

On your second day, make sure you use everything you’ve learned the day before. Dress like your coworkers. Bring some toys (or don’t) to put on your desk. If you had to ask about something on Monday, make sure you can do it the next. And have some new questions prepared -- everybody’s here to help. That’s the sign of a good workplace.

So why stop now? Rock the first day of your internship. And rock every day after that.

Here’s the real secret of rocking your internship: doing a kickass job on Monday means nothing if you prove yourself a liar on Tuesday. There’s no first impression like a second impression to drive the point home. You’ve been doing well so far, so keep it up. If you’ve followed these tips, you’ve got everything going for you now. Friendly coworkers that like you. A boss that respects you. A chance to really see the world in a memorable way. Rock the first day of your internship. And rock every day after that.

Photo Credits: Alex Schoemann, Evan Lohmann, and Richelle Gamlam.
Colin Heinrich
Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music...