Like an internship at home, not every internship abroad will be the most fun and amazing time of your life, but it should be a meaningful learning experience. We all have expectations of how an experience will be, and international experiences often have the highest expectations of all.
If you find yourself in an internship abroad that isn't what you wanted, there are a number of things you can do to remedy the situation. From taking steps to make the most of your internship, to making the decision to change to a new internship, we're here to help you with the actions to take when things aren't quite right.
First, Assess The Situation
Before you take any action, allow yourself some time to take a step back from the situation and reflect upon what's really wrong. Are you feeling unsatisfied with the work you're doing, your relationship with colleagues, or is it something more serious, like sexual harassment or feeling unsafe in your workplace? Depending on the answer, there are very different ways you'll need to handle the situation.
Also make sure that it's the internship that's the problem, and not a different aspect of your experience. Are you really unhappy because of something else, like your housing situation? Is it a long commute, rude roommates, or an unsafe location that is bothering you? Are you feeling burnt out from working full time? Are you having trouble adjusting to the local culture, environment or general homesickness?
If you recognize that it's really one of these issues that is causing problems, you can take measures to address them without having to take the extreme measure of changing your internship. After all, it's much easier to find a new place to live or ask for an adjusted schedule than to try to find and start over in a new internship.
And, unfortunately, in some cases like homesickness or culture shock, a new internship is just not going to solve your problems.
Try To Fix The Problem
Some problems aren't as big as you think. Part of the point of going abroad is having to face challenges on your own and push yourself out of your comfort zone.
If you feel like you're nothing more than a glorified barista at your internship, are getting bad vibes from your colleagues, or are facing longer (or shorter) hours or less pay/benefits than you were promised, it's easy to think that there's nothing you can do but leave and find something else. But many times, the solution is something as simple as speaking up. Some ways you can try and fix your problem:
Talk it out
Ask your supervisor if you can schedule a meeting, and talk to them about what's concerning you.
If you feel like you're being underutilized, let them know that you'd like to take on other tasks. Come prepared with a list of skills you'd like to build, experience you'd like to gain, or projects you'd like to work on. Don't expect to have tons of responsibility handed to you right away, but ask for an opportunity to show them what you've got.
Sometimes what seems like a purposeful wrong is actually a miscommunication. If you're being asked to work 40 hours instead of the agreed-upon 30, or being sent home early every day, or are facing issues with pay, stipends, housing or other promised compensation, bring these issues up to your supervisor (or an HR person) immediately. More often than not, this is an accidental oversight or misunderstanding that can easily be rectified.
Seek out opportunities for change
Maybe your supervisor is busy and hard to talk to. Get to know your colleagues -- in your department and in other departments -- and see what you can learn from them. Seek out ways to help them, or perhaps even try to develop a mentorship with someone.
When you're asked to do what seem like menial tasks, try to look at the bigger picture. What do these tasks accomplish. Are you building foundational skills without even realizing it? Do you see ways you can improve the process? Run with it!
Taking initiative goes a long way, and it could make a huge difference in how you're treated and how you feel in your internship.
Adjust your attitude
Are you looking for things to dislike about your internship? Are you mad you don't have enough work, then annoyed when you're assigned a task? Do you think things are beneath you that (*gasp*) maybe aren't?
It's important to remember that you do have to pay some dues and work hard to get to the good stuff. You need to put yourself out there, try hard, and show how capable you are. It's also important to remember you won't always love everything.
If you don't like your internship at all, feel disconnected from your colleagues, or if you find yourself interning in an aspect of your field that you don't enjoy, you have to decide if it's worth uprooting yourself from or if it's something you should ride out. Yes, it's cliche, but this will be a learning experience. And a lot of times, things do get better.
Often you just need to give yourself time to adjust. You never know if maybe with time you'll grow to enjoy the work you're doing or new tasks you take on further into the internship. It's a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes the problem is with you, and a change in perspective or attitude is the only thing that can improve your situation.
If The Problem Can't Be Fixed...
Sometimes a problem just can't be fixed. If you flew halfway around the world -- and perhaps dropped thousands of dollars -- to gain experience in an engineering internship and you find yourself in a marketing internship, that's a problem that need to be addressed in a different way.
The same goes for serious issues like feeling unsafe or facing sexual harassment in the workplace, being overworked or underpaid when you have a set agreement, or if you've tried and tried to address the problem with the above-mentioned methods and still nothing has changed.
Bring the problem to your program provider
If you're interning abroad through an internship placement organization or program provider, this should make things a little easier for you. Part of the reason people pay program fees and go through a provider is to have some support in these kinds of situations.
If there's an in-country contact person, make an appointment to meet with them as soon as possible. They'll have the local insight, and likely the experience, to deal with whatever problems you're facing.
You want to be sure you're not dealing with a simple miscommunication or misconstruing actions or events that are actually cultural norms. And you want to be sure that you handle any sensitive issues the right way, rather than burning bridges, causing offense, or making a situation worse.
If there isn't an on-the-ground person you can speak with, many providers have a 24/7 support line. Of course, this is for emergencies, so don't misuse this service if you don't need to. Get on your provider's website (or look though your orientation materials) and find the appropriate contact information. Call or email the appropriate person with your concerns.
If you aren't with a program provider, or if you are not receiving the assistance you need, you may also want to contact your home university.
Dealing With Sexual Harassment or Feeling Unsafe in the Workplace
- If you feel you are being sexually harassed in the workplace, you may want to try to talk to the offender first if you feel there's a possibility it is a misunderstanding or cultural difference. You may also want to talk to a supervisor or HR professional at the company.
- If the harassment continues, or if you feel unsafe or unable to approach the person or go to work, immediately contact someone at your program provider, or at your home university if you are not using a third-party organization.
- Depending on the situation, especially if you feel an immediate threat, you may want to contact the local police.
- In the case of sexual harassment, you will likely need to file a report. Your provider or university should be able to provide you with the necessary steps to deal with the situation.
- If you do not have a third-party organization or university to help you, you may want to contact your local consulate or embassy for help. You may also want to do some research online about how your host country handles cases like sexual harassment.
Taking matters into your own hands
If you don't have the support system of a placement provider or university, you'll need to take matters into your own hands. At the end of the day, you have to do what is right for you and if the internship you're in just isn't working out, you have every right to make the decision to walk away.
Again, if it's a serious issue you may need to consult with your home country's embassy or local consulate, or even in extreme cases the police. But if the matter isn't quite that serious, there are steps you can take on your own.
First, if you haven't already talked to your supervisor (perhaps because you know the issue was one they couldn't remedy), now is the time. If you're going to leave your internship, you should show enough respect and professionalism to let them know (don't just go M.I.A!).
If the issue is something like the internship being in the wrong field for you, talk it over with your supervisor and let them know you'll be seeking out a new opportunity. Offer to stay on for a bit to complete any work you might have started. (In the real world this would be two weeks, and in this case you'll probably have some time before you can find and begin a new internship anyway.)
You never know, your supervisor might be able to find you another internship in a different department or might have a friend or contact in your field that they could connect you with. Being honest and upfront is always better than ducking your head and leaving unannounced (or worse yet, just no longer showing up!).
Seriously, give some warning before you quit!
If you're sure (or fairly sure) you're going to be leaving your current internship, you really should have sit-down to talk with your supervisor and let them know the situation, if you haven't already. Ideally this would be before you drop the news that you're leaving, so you aren't dropping a bomb on them completely out of nowhere.
As stated before, this is especially important if there is even the slightest possibility of remedying the situation. You don't want to burn bridges if you don't have to.
When it comes to the point where you have to leave an internship, especially if you're further into it than a week or two, we hope you don't decide to cut your losses and head home. Of course, there are sometimes traumatic situations that may require you to return home and regroup.
However, for the most part, it's better to find a new internship and work hard to salvage your international experience -- especially if you're there for a full semester or year. Finding a new internship and starting over can be difficult and time-consuming, but it also might not be as bad as you think.
Work with your placement provider
If you're interning overseas through a placement provider, they should be able to find a new internship for you.
Of course, this can depend on a number of things. The provider may or may not feel your desire to change internships is legitimate. You may have to do some major negotiating with your contact at the organization to get them to help you out, especially if you're just feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in your internship.
Every organization is different. Some will bend over backwards to help you, and many will have so many contacts in your location that it will not be difficult for them to place you somewhere else. (Just be mindful of having unrealistic expectations, especially if you will now be spending a short or irregular time in an internship -- and likely at a company that has had less time to prepare for you.)
Other organizations may charge you an extra fee or, in rare instances, refuse or be unable to place you elsewhere. If you find this to be the case, don't book a new plane ticket home just yet.
Find a new internship on your own
It may seem intimidating to find an internship abroad on your own, particularly if you initially used an internship placement service or program provider, but it's not impossible. And you've got one thing going for you: you're already in the country!
Attend networking events or even just regular social meetups that are perhaps in some way related to your target field. You never know who you may meet who has an opening -- or will even create an internship position for you -- or who can connect you with someone who can help you. Constantly ask around if anyone knows a person who might be able to help you or even just knows of a company worth reaching out to.
If you left your previous internship on a positive note, ask your former colleagues, supervisor, or HR manager if they can help you out at all. It can be disheartening sometimes to send out blind emails to companies offering yourself up and begging for an opportunity when you will rarely hear back, but you never know when one might lead to something!
Finally, if you're a college student, utilize your secret weapons: your school's international education office and career center. Your school may have connections with local companies, ideas of where previous students have interned, or may even be able to connect you with alumni living in your host country who can help you out.
Tying Up Loose Ends: Visas
One other thing to keep in mind is your visa situation. If you were specifically sponsored by your first host company to intern abroad, you may have some paperwork ahead of you. Your best bet is to consult your local consulate and do some online research specific to your situation -- ideally before you quit or attempt to find a new internship.
If your visa relies on you earning college credit as a student, not receiving pay, or any other requirements, make sure you'll still meet these at your new internship. You'll also potentially have to consult with your university if you're earning credit for the internship and make sure you're still meeting their requirements as well.
Again, if you're abroad through a program or placement provider, they'll likely be able to make sure you are covering all the appropriate bases. If not, it's up to you to make sure you're still legally in the country in your new situation.
Remember, You Have Options
At the end of the day, you have specific reasons for interning abroad and your internship should be helping you accomplish those goals. Just remember that you have to put in the effort to get the experience you want, but if your internship falls far too short of your (realistic!) expectations or puts you in an uncomfortable position, you do have options.
Hopefully you never find yourself in such a situation, but if you do, we hope the above steps will help you change the course of your international internship experience and return home stronger, smarter, more fulfilled, and without regrets.