5 Things I Learned From Interning Abroad

This post is contributed by Christy Campbell, a SPS Featured Blogger.

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After I finished my fateful year of teaching English, I quickly started searching for other opportunities that didn’t require grading papers and extrapolating on essay forms.

As I had little experience under my belt, I wound up with an “editorial” internship at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Not too shabby, right? That’s what I thought too.

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While I’d held internships in the past as a student, this was the first time I was a college graduate, putting on my “business casual” attire and commuting to work in the mornings. I felt so grown up. And besides, I had a year of living in the suburbs of China to prove that I wasn’t a complete newbie (even though I totally was).

Although I would have certainly preferred a cushy salary and swanky title, few people come by those without paying their dues first, so I was pretty proud of myself for landing such a coveted spot. I slid into my appointed cubicle, sat in awe of the slightly older staff and did my best to stay out of everyone’s way while getting into as much as I could.

While what I learned at the time had more to do with copy editing and pagination, I have gleaned a few things from the experience, so pull out your pens, because I’m about to get teacher-y on you.

Five Things I Learned From Interning Abroad:

1) Network. Let’s start with the obvious and over-stated truth that is networking. Whether you’re trying to get an internship overseas or you just landed one and are trying to figure out how to make this a stepping stone to a “real job” the answer is the same: NETWORK.

What do I mean? Simply this: be vocal, be bold, be honest, be kind, be near-annoying (but not really annoying) in getting to know new people, asking questions about who they are and what they do, telling folks who you are, offering your help/services and then what you’re looking for. (Please don’t get this out of order).

In truth, just writing this makes my fingers kink a little because I’m an introvert through and through and attending networking events is a bit like sitting through the playing of a scratched record, but it has been the key element to winning a fellowship, finding a great internship, landing a sweet job and starting my own business with real, human clients. So I cannot overstate it enough: go network.

2) Do Stuff for Other People. The beautiful thing about internships is that they’re a great opportunity to learn by doing. Offer to help folks: you’re most likely working for free or nearly nothing anyway, so what have you got to lose by helping someone out?

Offer to chip in on projects for others around the office; when you meet cool people at events or just out and about, hone in on an opportunity to help them out in some way. Even if it’s in a personal capacity instead of a professional one, this is the best way to meet people, weave yourself in the fabric of the place you’re at and build a community abroad.

3) Have fun. In case you’re wondering, this is likely to appear in every article. But it’s a necessary reminder if you’re anything like me, because if you are a type A personality and bent on “making the most of this opportunity” it’s easy to forget that you’re young, you’re getting to try things out without heavy consequences (usually) and really, the best way to make the most of an opportunity is to actually enjoy it.

This is true of any internship, but especially one you take overseas, because you’re in a new place that is teeming with new things to be explored and you have a built in referral system in your colleagues so ask for recommendations, tips and even to be taken out and shown around!

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4) Don’t Be Afraid to Ask. I am proud by nature and have a hard time asking for things. So please appreciate I’m not saying this lightly but with full regret over all the times I didn’t ask for clarification, help or additional opportunities (like “hey, can I tag along to that thing you’re going to?”).

In truth, those you work with would much prefer you ask them to explain the project one more time, to ask them if you can join them for lunch, to ask them what they’re up to and if you can contribute. As someone who has managed interns, volunteers and team members, I can attest to having better relationships with those who ask questions than those who don’t. I am also much more likely to give good recommendations to those who’ve asked questions because it shows an interest and engagement. So stay calm and ask away.

5) Go Native. Ok, take that any way you want to, but the way I intend it is this: don’t just hang out with all the other foreigners in the office. Your local colleagues are the most amazing resources for your current home and while it can be much harder to bust into those circles, work hard to get to know your local colleagues, ask for recommendations of places to check out and even do your best to practice your language skills with them.

Again the introvert in me wants to flee from this advice, but it’s repeatedly served me well and I believe it will do the same for you.

Have you interned abroad? What did you learn from the experience?

 Photo credit: Christy Campbell

About the Author: Christy Campbell

Christy Campbell is still working on her definition of "home" as she resettles every so often on a new continent. You can find her ramblings on Lane Letters where she's working to build a community of like-minded adventurers.

8 comments
Carrie Herrera Niesen
Carrie Herrera Niesen

One thing I found that helped me during my internship abroad was to laugh at myself (because my co-workers had a tendency to start it ;-)). Great tips and I wish I would have asked more questions and to participate in more opportunities during mine.

Cate Brubaker
Cate Brubaker

For me, laughing at myself was always a big part of being abroad. It really helps to keep a sense of humor when working in another country!

Christy Campbell
Christy Campbell

Yes! I'm so with you, Carrie. In fact, even writing these tips makes me chuckle at myself and those past experiences all over again :)

Greg Hubbs
Greg Hubbs

Great piece and to the point. Internships at home and abroad have long become a necessity even for those graduating from elite schools. Some have even written about the need for parent/student collaboration in finding and procuring fruitful internships in an era when well-paying jobs are harder to come by. Of course, internships abroad add so much personal and employment value whether you work abroad or in your home country, as you will likely be in communication with people abroad as part of your job. If you plan and get lucky, you may even get transferred to the location you desire!

Cate Brubaker
Cate Brubaker

They do seem like a necessity these days, don't they? An international internship seems like a way for globally-minded students to set themselves apart.

Christy Campbell
Christy Campbell

You're so right, Greg. It's amazing that we live in a time where international internships are such an accessible opportunity for so many and that they're not only available but encouraged! I'm not sure I would have taken one had I not be gently prodded into it for school, but I'm so glad I did as it opened up entirely new opportunities for me and taught me so much more than a professional skill set.

Cate Brubaker
Cate Brubaker

Interning abroad is becoming such a popular way to spend time in another country. I imagine it can be difficult to learn the office environment on top of a new culture and language. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips!

Christy Campbell
Christy Campbell

You're so right. I feel like that sense of obligation or pressure to take an internship abroad sometimes overrides what an amazing opportunity it can be to get a glimpse into an entirely different world, both personally and professionally.