Internships Abroad

How to Score a Paid Internship in Latin America

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.

Ahhh, the paid internship – that elusive, unicorn-like creation that so many of us dream of finding and so very few of us actually capture. But you, you’re the ambitious type – and, not content to hunt for the mysterious beast at home, you’ve got your sights set on an internship in Latin America.

The good news is that there are paid internships out there, as long as you know where to look. Generally, you’ll be better off in the major cities like Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima or Rio, where there’s more business activity and thus more opportunities for interns.

You’re the ambitious type... you’ve got your sights set on an internship in Latin America.

Some of the most popular fields for internships in Latin America include marketing, business, health, law and human rights and development, although there’s plenty of growth in fields like architecture, urban planning and finance as well. Whether you want to learn baout micro-finance, expand community development, or advance women's empowerment, there are opportunities for everyone.

If your interests lie somewhere else, never fear. There’s something out there for you – you just might have to look a little harder to find it.

The not-so-good news is that looking for an internship abroad, especially a paid internship, requires quite a bit more effort than what you might need to find a placement at home, especially if you don’t already have a network in the place you’re looking. Don’t let this intimidate you, though – just think of it as valuable skills you’re gaining for future job hunts. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you begin your search process:

Define What You Mean by “Paid”

No, you don’t have to settle for compensation that takes the form of coupons and sandwiches, but you may have to adjust your personal asking rate to fit the location and situation. If you’re interning for a nonprofit or volunteer organization, chances are they don’t exactly have much extra money to go around.

They may, however, have a place for you to stay, meals for you to eat or transportation that can get you back and forth to the office or wherever else you may need to be.

Since housing, food and transportation are typically the biggest monthly expenses, especially in a foreign city, having those taken care of can feel like getting paid, even if you’re not making anything extra.

Alternately, you can look for scholarships to help fund your internship and, at the very least, break even.

Find Your Focus

If you’re seriously set on finding a paid internship in your field, you'd better know exactly what that field is. There aren’t many paid internships in pretty much any career right now, but knowing your specific area of focus can help you find about the few that may exist for candidates like you.

Narrowing your search can also lead you to smaller, more obscure organizations or companies that you might not have found otherwise.

If you want to be working in global health, for example, don’t bother looking at programs or organizations that focus on finance. They might be able to pay you, but they can’t help you move your career forward -- and that relevant experience is far more important than money.

Narrowing your search can also lead you to smaller, more obscure organizations or companies that you might not have found otherwise that might be more open to accepting interns and negotiating some sort of stipend or compensation.

Skip the Placement Programs

There are plenty of programs out there that will be happy to place you in an internship – just as soon as you pay them for the privilege of doing so, of course!

Even if you are willing and able to pony up the fee for a program, the majority of internships arranged through these organizations tend to be unpaid.

While this might be okay for someone who feels nervous about interning abroad without any support, and money isn't a priority, it’s not going to cut it if you’ve got your heart set on getting compensated for your work – and you definitely don’t want to spend more money paying someone else just to find an unpaid gig for you!

It might seem convenient to have someone else do all the heavy lifting for you, but just think about how much more accomplished you’ll feel when you find a real, paying internship all on your own.

Update—and Translate—Your Resume!

At this point, you should know how the whole job/internship application process works at home: resume, cover letter, hopefully an interview, etc. But these protocols aren’t always the same abroad, so it’s helpful to tweak your resume for your specific audience before sending it on its merry way.

Throughout most Spanish-speaking parts of Latin America, a resume is called an “hoja de vida,” and it’s often more like a CV than what we think of as a resume.

Hiring managers don’t use the same one-page cutoff rule that they do in the States.

Brevity is not typically important for an hoja de vida -- instead, you’re expected to list and describe the responsibilities of every job you’ve ever had, then follow that up with your educational history (university and/or the highest degree you’ve earned), past internships, volunteer positions, additional skills and plenty of references.

If you’ve been working for more than a year or two, don’t be surprised or feel like something is wrong if your hoja de vida is three or more pages – this is normal, and hiring managers don’t use the same one-page cutoff rule that they do in the States.

In many countries, you’ll be asked to include a photo on your hoja de vida as well. While this may seem horrifying to those of us who come from a place where this is generally illegal, it’s very much the norm throughout Latin America, so be ready to smile for the camera (and your future boss!).

This should go without saying, but if you’re applying to a job in a Spanish-speaking country, make sure you’ve had your resume/hoja de vida translated to Spanish (the same goes for Portuguese if applying to an internship in Brazil).

You can’t count on your new employer understanding English, and even if you’re allowed to submit your documents in English, they may also want a copy in the local language. Think of this as an opportunity to learn all sorts of new work relevant vocabulary in a foreign language!

Of course, if you’re trying to find an internship through an American / British / Canadian run organization, this may not apply. As always, do your research!

Network, Network, Network

Just like any other job or internship, landing a paid internship in Latin America is going to come down to who you know.

I know a girl who's in the middle of a volunteer stint in Colombia who found the gig by asking someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew the organization here.

Even if you're a LinkedIn rockstar, you never know where people’s connections go, so don’t be afraid to start asking around.

If you know people who have lived or worked in your region or field of interest, start with them -- if not, social media resources like Twitter and LinkedIn can be a great way to contact people working at organizations that interest you.

Keep in mind that even if they don't have a position for you, they may know someone else, so stay open minded and always send a follow up thank you e-mail.

Be Willing to Negotiate, but Don’t Settle

Again, you may not be able to find an internship with exactly the kind of compensation you were hoping for, but that doesn’t mean you should give up and take the first offer that comes along, even if it’s not paid.

Being willing to negotiate and compromise based on reality is not the same as giving up on your goal.

If you want to be earning money for your time, agreeing to take on a volunteer position -- even if it’s with an organization you think is super cool -- is not going to do you any good.

Sure, you may have to accept that half of your “paycheck” goes toward providing you with housing, but being willing to negotiate and compromise based on reality is not the same as giving up on your goal.

Don’t Rule out the Big Players

Though you may have aspirations of interning with a small NGO that’s quietly saving the world, those types of organizations typically aren’t the ones with lots of extra money for interns.

It may not be as good for your karma, but there are plenty of major international corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Google, that offer internships in various parts of the world, including Latin America.

These internships tend to be fairly competitive (of course! Because they pay!), but if you manage to snag one, it can be a great opportunity to go somewhere you might otherwise not be able to, without destroying your credit rating and even picking up some job skills and good contacts in the process.

Be Nosy and Ask Questions

Once you think you’ve found something, ask lots of questions to your future employer.

Other countries may have a different legal or payment structure for interns, or may have nothing whatsoever that regulates contracting interns.

You want to make sure that you’ll actually get paid and won’t lose all of that money to taxes, and that you’ll really have a place to live rather than just a vague promise.

You should also find out more about what you’ll actually be doing, to make sure you won’t just be stuck at a desk all day.

Again, some countries have a much stronger internship culture than others, and there may be some places that either simply don’t know what to do with you or will treat you like another full-time employee.

You can’t possibly prepare yourself for everything that could happen to you, but asking as many questions as possible before heading out will help you get a better idea of what you’ll be asked to do – and whether they really have any intention of paying you.

A note about visas: Most Latin American countries do require a work visa for paid employment. So if you’re getting paid (as in, an actual paycheck, and not just room and board), you can’t stay on a tourist visa, even if you’re only there for a few months.

Before you buy plane tickets, check (and double-check) with your host organization and official government information to see what you need to do to make sure you’re working legally, if there's any paperwork you need to bring with you, or steps to take before you leave.

It's Hard Work but It's Worth It

The truth is that nobody is going to walk up to you and offer you a magical paid internship -- if you want one, you have to go out and find it yourself. But you can’t do that alone, so you better start calling in some favors and asking around.

Ultimately, finding a paid internship in Latin America is going to come down to how much you want to do it -- and how much research you’re willing to do and unsolicited emails you’re willing to send. Real, dependable, paid internships are few and far between these days anywhere, so you have to be willing to put in the time to find the right one for you.

But if you do, and it works out, it can make a world of difference for your career and your life! And hey, we said you're the ambitious type, right? A little work like this shouldn't scare you off!