You did it! You found an internship abroad, and now you’re anxiously counting down the hours until your international flight.
Getting pumped before an international experience is a wonderful thing, and you should relish all of the daydreaming, researching, and anticipation as you get ready for your time abroad. With that being said, it’s easy to envision wildly unrealistic expectations for what’s to come. To help make your internship a success, try to keep your expectations in check before you depart.
Your Work Schedule May Be Different Than You Expect
It’s easy to assume that your internship will be from 8 am – 5 pm sharp with one hour allotted for lunch Monday through Friday, because that’s what we’re used to. Maybe your new culture observes a siesta, and you’ll get to enjoy an envy worthy two-hour break in your workday. Your work week could start on Sunday instead of Monday. Perhaps your entire office works half-days on Saturdays.
Come to terms with the fact that your work schedule may not be just like the typical day in the U.S. In addition to your schedule, your new country will celebrate different local, national, government, and religious holidays that you may not be familiar with quite yet. When you begin your internship and you meet with your supervisor to discuss your schedule, it may be a good idea to ask about upcoming holidays that your office observes.
Your Commute May Be Different
The U.S. relies heavily on cars and expansive highways to get to and from work each day, but your new commute will be totally different without your own ride. If your internship is in a large metropolitan city, you may need to walk several blocks and then use using a combination of buses, trains, or metros to get there. If your internship is in a smaller city, locals may rely on walking, biking, sharing taxis, or taking the local bus to get to work each day. It may take you over an hour to get to work each day. Although it may be an adjustment to wake up earlier than you normally would to navigate through a foreign city, try to find ways to make the most of it. See your daily commute as an opportunity to live like a local.
Studying a Foreign Language is Different than Working in a Foreign Language
Maybe you imagine yourself getting a standing ovation after an eloquent presentation all in Spanish. Or maybe you can see yourself having witty banter with your coworkers in Mandarin during a coffee break. Even if you’ve taken AP language classes, majored in a foreign language, or minored in cultural studies, being surrounded by a foreign language 24/7 and using professional jargon in the workplace is a completely different ball game. Even in English-speaking locations, you are bound to encounter new slang and have miscommunications.
Before your internship starts, remember that expressing yourself in a different language will be a challenge, so go easy on yourself. It might be helpful to expose yourself to your new language — or better yet, your new regional dialect—through TV shows, movies, and music before you depart. You may want to learn some common words or phrases that you think you’ll be hearing and using in your field to get prepared.
Your Training May Not Be What You Think
Workplaces in the U.S. typically value training their new employees. Meet and greets, organized orientations, and detailed new employee manuals are pretty common when you start a new internship or job in the U.S. It’s possible that your new host country doesn’t share the same appreciation of structured training for their interns. Prepare yourself to go with the flow. Learn as much as you can through observing your supervisor and co-workers. If you feel like you need more training in order to do your assigned tasks to the best of your ability, schedule a time to meet with a co-worker or with your supervisor to get your questions answered.
Your Boss May Be Late to Meetings
Being “on-time” for a meeting or an appointment in the United States can really mean arriving 10 minutes early. This cultural norm that we take for granted may not necessarily be the same norm for your new country and work culture. It’s completely possible that your coworkers will trickle in 15 minutes after a scheduled meeting, spend another 10 minutes catching up over coffee and snacks, and then after everyone has arrived, 30 minutes later the meeting is canceled due to technical difficulties with the projector. While this may infuriate you, take a deep breath, observe how your co-workers and supervisors behave and react to timeliness. Find a balance between your idea of what it means to be on time and what your supervisor and co-workers perceive as on time. When you’re not the first or the last person to arrive to a meeting, you’ll know that you’ve found your balance.
You May Not Be BFFs with all of Your Co-Workers
As an international intern with a pre-determined start date and end date, your soon-to-be co-workers know that your internship is different from a full-time job offer. It’s possible that your company has a specific internship position set aside for interns like you, and the organization is used to seeing a new face around the office every couple of months. A co-worker may not see the value in getting to know you since you’ll eventually be on your way. Try to focus on having pleasant, engaging, and respectful interactions with all your co-workers, and be patient! Those who are interested in stopping by your desk to chat with you or inviting you to grab a bite to eat after work will. When a co-worker makes an effort to include you, make sure to recognize their offer and take it!
Work May Be Cancelled Unexpectedly
Expect the unexpected. Some international organizations could delay or cancel work for something that you may assume is no big deal. In some countries, a heavy rainstorm or snow flurry, a university student protest or bus strike, a city-wide festival or parade, or that cold that’s been going around the office may cause work to be cancelled for a day or two. During your first few days, find a co-worker and see if they would be willing to shoot you a text or give you a call when an unexpected delay or cancellation happens.
Keep Yourself in Check
Managing your expectations before you start your international internship will allow you to prepare for the rewarding challenge ahead of you. Focus on maintaining flexibility, keep your cool when faced with stressful situations, and celebrate even the smallest of victories, and your internship will be a success.
Katie Goldberg is the Outreach Manager at ISA Internships & Service-Learning. As a geography student at the University of Colorado Boulder, Katie spent a semester studying and conducting field research on the natural and cultural ecology of the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. Prior to joining ISA, Katie served as a volunteer English teacher in a public elementary school and taught English at a language institute in Manizales, Colombia.