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How to Ensure Your International Internship Won't Just Be Administrative Work

Intern abroad

Congratulations on your exciting new internship abroad! You hop off the plane, find your way to your new home without getting terribly overcharged by the cab driver, take a shower, pass out, and arrive bright and early the next morning, all ready to change the world – only to be greeted by a desk piled with papers as high as you are tall and directions to the copy machine. Not exactly what you expected, right?

Finding an internship abroad is a great step toward beginning an international career, but just getting the position isn’t enough. Maybe you don’t mind sitting at a computer once in a while, but chances are that your dreams of an internship abroad didn't include hours and hours of printing and copying. But it doesn’t have to be like this – if you don’t just want to be an office dweller for two or three months, there are some important steps you can take to avoid the terrible fate of the administrative internship. Many of these require some planning on your part before you even arrive, so keep it in mind before you go dashing off with a suitcase full of nice work pants and no idea what you’ll actually be doing.

The more specific your skill set, and the better your skills match with your internship responsibilities, the more likely you are to be given actual, meaningful work.

Go your own way

The best way to ensure that your internship won’t just be busy work is to find it through your own connections. The more familiar your potential employer is with you, your skills and your enthusiasm, the less likely they will be to stick you in a corner making copies all day. Of course, for this to work you'll need to know someone (or known someone who knows someone) in both the country and field that interests you, but it never hurts to ask around. Find someone who works in that field at your university, through friends or via social media, and ask them if they know anyone abroad. You may be surprised – considering how international most fields are these days, it’s entirely possible that you know someone who can connect you with a law firm in South Africa or a tech startup in Shanghai. Once you’ve made that connection, find out if they could use an intern, or just try to talk to them about work happening in that region. If you can market yourself well, you may find yourself on a plane before you know it!

Intern abroad

Look for something that fits your skill set

Most of us are still buried somewhere deep in the “what am I going to do with my life” phase, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to be indecisive about your internship. The more specific your skill set, and the better your skills match with your internship responsibilities, the more likely you are to be given actual, meaningful work. If your only planning for your internship is thinking that it would be so cool to work in the fashion industry in Paris, then you may be stuck behind a desk (or in the copy room) all semester.

On the other hand, if you have experience doing youth trainings, working at summer camp and spending time with your teenage siblings without strangling them, and you plan on interning with an organization that does youth empowerment and leadership building, for example, your odds of getting face time with the actual projects and beneficiaries is a lot higher. Think about what you can offer the organization, not just what the internship can offer you, and make sure they know it.

Know the language

This seems like a no-brainer, but a few words can go a long way toward making your internship more productive. Working in a foreign country will be an eye-opening experience, no matter what, but it will be even better if you have your ears open, too. You don’t necessarily have to have full command of the language to do well at your internship, but a basic understanding of relevant words and other helpful terms will be very useful to make sure you’re fulfilling your responsibilities and to communicate with your co-workers and supervisors. Asking for a particular document is going to be much easier with words than dramatic hand motions and the workplace version of Pictionary, so if you’re looking into a non-English-speaking country, make sure to brush up on your vocabulary before heading abroad.

The more specific your skill set, and the better your skills match with your internship responsibilities, the more likely you are to be given actual, meaningful work.

Be proactive

This is just as true for internships in your home country as anywhere else – if you don’t find yourself something to do, it’s unlikely that anyone will give you something interesting. In some workplaces, interns are treated as equal employees (except for that whole getting paid thing), but you can’t count on that happening wherever you are. Chances are your supervisors will be happy to give you more to do once you’ve proved you can do it, but they have plenty else to think about and it may not always be on the top of their priority list. This is especially true if you’re doing your internship somewhere that isn’t accustomed to having interns, or hasn’t designated a specific role for you. Find ways you think you can help, or projects that will help both you and the company. You don’t have to be pushy, but make sure you show them that you have ideas and things you’re willing to do, and chances are good that they’ll give you an opportunity to do them.

Intern abroad

Goals aren’t just for futbol players

Following up on the previous point, don’t arrive expecting to be told exactly what to do – and even if you are told exactly what to do, don’t settle for it. As an intern from another country, you bring a unique viewpoint and skill set to your company, and you both want to make sure that you’re benefiting as much as possible from that. You've chosen to do an internship there for a reason, so there must be something you want to gain from the experience.

Before you even arrive, make a list of your goals and what you hope to accomplish or gain from your internship – either a project you want to complete or just some new skills you hope to return home with. When you arrive, figure out which of these goals seem realistic and try to discuss them with your supervisors and see how they might fit into the organization’s plans for you. This will show your initiative and will give you some control over what you’ll be doing – as long as you don’t suggest any administrative work, you should be fine.

Do your reading

These days, everything comes crowd-sourced and vetted, and internships are no exception, even if they’re across an ocean or two. If you’re looking at an internship set up through a particular program, look on the program site or read reviews for helpful quotes or testimonials from alumni, or try to make contact with an alumni to talk to him or her independently. Some popular intern organizations include CRCC Asia and Global Experiences.

If you’re finding the internship on your own, ask the organization if they would be willing to put you in touch with someone who has worked there to give you a better idea of what to expect. They should be willing to do this, unless that person has nothing good to say about it – in which case, it’s probably better that you know before you buy a plane ticket. The glory of the internet is that it’s almost always possible to find someone who’s done something before you, so harness that power and do some sleuthing to make sure the internship is actually what you want.

As an intern from another country, you bring a unique viewpoint and skill set to your company, and you both want to make sure that you’re benefiting as much as possible from that. You've chosen to do an internship there for a reason, so there must be something you want to gain from the experience.

There’s no foolproof way to guarantee a desk-free internship, but these strategies should at least help get you away from that chair once in a while. Remember, too, that there are plenty of work skills you can gain in an office – just make sure that you speak up if you think you could be doing more.

Photo Credits: NASA, Travis Isaacs and API Study Abroad.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.