When I was in university about five years ago, most of my classmates took summer internships in finance, consulting, or marketing back in their hometowns or perhaps New York or Washington D.C. A few of my more ambitious peers were looking overseas for opportunities, but usually wound up in the same places: London, Beijing, or Madrid.
These international internship experiences certainly set them apart from the crowd, but there were others of us who took our overseas experiences to the next level. We found roles in companies and NGOs in Nairobi, Mexico City, Johannesburg, or Jakarta. I found a marketing role in Cairo for three months and then worked in business development for a non-profit organization in Guatemala during another summer.
When it came to applying for jobs after graduation, these experiences helped me stand out from my peers as an independent and forward-thinking risk-taker who offered a different perspective on business due to her off-the-beaten-path experiences.
The experience I gained by interning in unconventional locations was richer not only by virtue of the challenges I encountered living in such a drastically different part of the world, working alongside the locals, and learning Arabic and Spanish, but also because I was tasked with a lot of responsibility. So few foreigners were looking for internships in Egypt when I was there that I was a scarce resource. In my consulting interviews, managing large-scale regional marketing initiatives for a well-known organization in the Middle East stood out and helped me get hired, later launching my international career that's since spanned six continents.
Here are a few recommendations of unconventional locations that offer unique opportunities for the ambitious risk-takers willing to search off the well-trodden path.
Ethiopia is the second most populated country on the African continent, headquarters of the African Union, and host to dozens of other international development organizations like USAID, WHO, and the GIZ. It's a thriving emerging market economy and besides professional development, boasts a rich history and culture that includes a unique language (Amharic), unparalleled cuisine, and 80 ethnic groups and hundreds of ancient tribes.
If you're interested in healthcare or community development, Ethiopia is particularly interesting. You could intern at a local hospital or health care center and gain medical fieldwork experience or even work in an administrative capacity to get exposure to public health systems in Africa. Many international development organizations offer internships and important community-building projects exist both in the capital of Addis Ababa or rural areas. Ethiopia is also home of the coffee bean and opportunities in export-import and agriculture abound.
In the past several years, Israel has emerged as a well-respected center of start-up culture and innovation, serving as an interesting cultural bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa. If you're looking for an opportunity to break into the start-up scene or gain hands-on experience in a tech company, you should be looking at Tel Aviv. Despite being a small country with only 8 million people, Israel has more Nasdaq-listed companies than any other country except the US and China.
Strategic support from the Israeli government, investment from prosperous members of its overseas Jewish diaspora, and strong ties to the US have helped bring Israel to the forefront of innovation. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and hundreds of other prominent multinational companies have research centers and extensive presence in Israel. Whether you have your sights on working in a start-up or a multinational, Israel has plenty of opportunities coming out of its 6,000 active startups and $4.8 billion of venture capital raised in 2016.
If you're interested in entrepreneurship and start-ups, Estonia is also a good place to look. Nicknamed the Little Silicon Valley of Europe, it has produced some well-known companies like Skype, Transferwise, Pipedrive, Click & Grow, Fortumo, and Lingvist. There's a strong focus on technology so if you're studying engineering or computer programming, opportunities abound.
It's also the first country in the world to allow foreigners to apply online to become "e-citizens," a policy the government enacted to further open its borders and attract people from all over the world to start companies in Estonia. It's been hugely successful in growing Estonian's international profile in the start-up world and there are currently has 20,000 applications in its e-resident pipeline.
If you're interested in working in Asia, try looking for internships in Malaysia instead of the usual suspects (Japan or China). Malaysia is one of the most modern and sophisticated countries in Southeast Asia, not to mention diverse: it has a strong presence of Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures, but English is widely spoken -- luckily for foreign visitors and job applicants. If you do happen to be studying Chinese, for example, you'll still find plenty of opportunities to grow your Mandarin skills.
Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, is a huge hub in the international finance world. Almost all major world banks and top financial services firms like Accenture, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, KPMG, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers have a presence there, so this is a great place for future bankers, analysts, and consultants to seek internships.
Mexico is arguably the economic center of all of Latin America and, with strong ties to the US and a wide spectrum of offerings in both tourism and business, its thriving economy is a hub of opportunity. It's also the world's largest population of Spanish speakers, so if you're working on achieving fluency in Spanish or focusing your future in the Latin American region, Mexico is a natural choice. It has the added benefits of having a low cost of living for interns and rich cultural and historical offerings ready for exploration.
Outside of Mexico City, the largest metropolitan city in the Western Hemisphere, there are several other major cities to seek placements, like Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Cancun. If you're interested in business, finance, or marketing, Mexico City is the logical choice, but Cancun offers plentiful choices for students of the hospitality industry. Proficiency in Spanish is needed or advisable for most placements.
Students with a regional interest in Asia will find Mongolia a truly off-the-beaten-path location. Sandwiched between two of the world's greatest powers, Russia and China, Mongolia is a fascinating location to gain relevant experience in real estate, mineral resources, engineering, and agriculture. It's also a great country for getting involved in the emerging markets investment space as many shrewd investors have long left China and are looking at her neighbors instead.
Having professional experience in Mongolia on your resume will not only radically open up your worldview by living in such a drastically different culture, but will help you stand out from the crowd for years to come. The capital of Ulaanbaatar, home to half of Mongolia's 3 million people, will likely be your office, but after work, you can also take time to experience nomadic life on the steppes with rural Mongolians, see the relationship between man and nature that has endured for millennia, and even go eagle hunting in the western mountains.
Editor's note: At this point, the tenuous political situation in Qatar, we strongly advise you review the U.S. State Department advisory page for Qatar before planning an internship here.
Students of Arabic with an interest in the Middle East may wonder what locations in the region are most suitable for internship opportunities. Recently gaining more global attention for its role as host of the World Cup 2022, Qatar is a small, safe, and vastly wealthy Arab nation that proves that a country's size is not necessarily in proportion to its influence.
Qatar is home to one of the world's fastest-growing economies with a government that actively invests its country's mineral resources back into other sectors of the economy at home and overseas. Qatar offers plentiful opportunities in the energy industry, notably natural gas and petroleum refinement, but also in education and journalism. Qatar is home to Al Jazeera and one of the largest international education hubs on the planet, the Qatar Foundation's Orwellian-sounding Education City.
Go Off the Beaten Path with Your Internship
If you dream of working internationally someday, the best way to set yourself up for success is to get relevant experience early on. An international internship experience sets the tone at the onset of your career and helps your resume stand out for years to come.
You can take it a step further and land competitive global roles by looking at internship opportunities in unconventional locations that showcase you as a forward-thinking risk-taker who has direct experience in valuable markets where few of your peers would have thought to look for opportunities.