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Was My International Internship a Waste of Time?

Tokyo crossing

I had a fourteen-hour layover in Taiwan on my way home. As soon as I stepped off the plane, I found myself a lounge and paid the costly price of admission for a chance at the free wifi and drinks. The chairs were rich leather, and I sunk into one – the first real luxury I had allowed myself since heading to intern in Vietnam months earlier. The leather caved under me with a shlump sound. I swirled the ice in my glass, watching the whirlpool fade back into tranquility and could only think one thing. I don’t want to go home yet. I’m not ready.

My international internship had given me priceless insight into working in a cross-cultural environment... but not everyone comes home happy.

After spending so much time in Asia, I had drunk in the culture -- slurping pho and boiled pig brains with my coworkers over an ice cold Saigon, hearing their stories over dripping coffee every morning, seeing the sunrise over the ocean -- and fallen in love. My apprehension wasn't due to any lack of fulfillment. The exact opposite. My international internship had given me priceless insight into working in a cross-cultural environment, and real life job experience, all while fulfilling my dream of living abroad.

However, not everybody comes home happy, and some people end up wondering: was my international internship a waste of time?. While the whole team at Go Overseas would like to give a big, resounding "no" to this question, we recognize everyone's different and you may have some doubts about your time abroad.

It's Not What Your Peers Are Doing...

Interns and passes

In the current (albeit improving) economy, the job market requires a diligent eye and the fastest clicking finger in the West. The millennial generation's been raised being told they're too good to be flipping burgers at McDonald's, only to enter the real world and find that's the only position available to them.

In that kind of reality, it's understandable that some of us might be hesitant to go on an extended tour of the world. For all the practical experience it provides, stepping off the plane back home could leave you feeling like the world has moved on without you -- that your peers are busy getting ahead, while you just "wasted" the past year backpacking around Asia. (Or, maybe that's just the FOMO kicking in)

The international internship, however, becomes a weird crossbreed between taking a gap year and entering the workforce, an attempt to tap into the primordial need to explore in a world that wants you to sit down at a computer and get on with your life. It's a way to be defiant to the machine while acknowledging its presence, and in that sense is something that everybody should do at least once. So why do so many people avoid it? How could people come home wondering if they wasted their time?

Our answer: Societal pressure. Priorities. Mind parasites that creep in and convince you that you're doing something wrong. And they're working.

But don't let that get to you. Of course it’s possible to travel and have a great career, even if societal pressures say you can’t. Opportunities for interning abroad are vast, and there’s guaranteed to be a program out there that can benefit both your life (as if travel doesn’t do that enough already) and your resume. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t think we could help. After all, program reviews are what we're all about on Go Overseas. That said, while it’s good to have goals in mind, skipping out on an experience of a lifetime and not interning abroad, or worrying that your international internship is a waste of time, only takes away from the ride.

The Benefits May Not Be Obvious...

Intern and director

But it’s not always the apprehensive who wonder if they’ve wasted their time after returning from a long trip overseas. There’s also the cynical and, to put it bluntly, the people who didn’t make the most of their internship while they were there. Those people step off the plane full of regret, having spent too much time in their comfort zone, hanging out with other expats and travelers, or not having challenged themselves enough at work.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know that you’re in the best time of your life until it’s over. Recognizing what you have takes a certain amount of prescience and joie de vivre, and obviously not everybody can pull it off. There’s no real tips to be given, no real special trick that’s going to put you over the edge and allow you to take full advantage of your life (though, there are some common mistakes you can avoid).

Normally, these feelings stem from the idea that there was always more to be done. But interning abroad is an entirely different animal from a simple backpacking tour. It requires a huge time commitment, a huge work commitment. It’s not about seeing the world, it’s about ingraining yourself into one particular niche, making a difference, working in a foreign language and culture, and improving yourself in both ways that benefit your worldview and your resume.

If you return home feeling unfulfilled after forging real relationships in another country, then the full impact of that experience just may not have fully hit you yet.

When you go home, you bring with you those lessons, applying them to your own life and thus bringing a part of the outside world home with you. If you return home feeling unfulfilled after forging real relationships in another country, then the full impact of that experience just may not have fully hit you yet.

So Will it Be a Waste of Time?

These ruminations all lead to the train of thought you need to apply to yourself. If you do an international internship, will it be a waste of time? The general answer anybody would tell you is a resounding “no” -- this is a site dedicated to getting people out in the world, after all -- but nobody knows your particular details quite like yourself. To figure out if an international internship will be a waste of time, or if your internship is full of benefits for you, ask these questions:

  • Will this benefit the career path I want to pursue? The benefits can be personal or technical -- maybe you develop a skill you’ll need in the future, maybe you’ll gain experience in a prestigious location. Placing an international internship on your resume won't look like a detour, and especially in some industries, will make you stand out among the competition.
  • Will this help me grow as a person? Another question most people would answer “yes” to without thinking, but it takes all types. If you think spending time abroad will not benefit you (the skills and experiences listed above, or even less tangible aspects of your emotional well-being) there’s no shame in searching for an internship closer to home.
  • Have you found an internship that's a good fit? An international internship is about work, not just having an adventure abroad. So don't ignore the fine print of your internship just because it's located in your dream destination -- Make sure you’ve chosen the right one and researched the heck out of it before departing.

Three simple questions, but they can offer direction and honest reflection. Any internship is what you make it, so choosing the right one -- and making sure you should be on one in the first place - is a good way to start. Don’t treat it like a vacation and it won’t feel frivolous.

Suggested Internship Abroad Programs

And take solace – narrowing the focus of your time abroad will enhance the experience, not limit it. The world’s a big place. Nobody will ever do anything. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try and try again. The internship abroad is but a still frame in the film of your life, an introduction to the working world and the international community. When you go overseas, it’s never a waste of time.

Photo Credits: Azlan DuPree, Staff, and IAEA Imagebook.
Colin Heinrich

Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music festivals, backwoods camping, local cuisine, and saying yes to things he doesn’t quite understand. Follow him at Elsewhere Man and on G+.