How to Make the Most of Your International Internship

Getting ready to go abroad for an international internship is both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking. We asked a few Cultural Vistas alumni to share their personal insights and offer up advice on how to have the best international internship experience possible.

We asked some of our alumni to share their advice for future international interns. Photo credit Elisabeth Fugmann
An international internship can be an incredible, life-changing experience if you do it right. Photo credit Elisabeth Fugmann

Do Research Before You Board the Plane

The last thing you want to do is show up in a new country completely unaware of what to expect, how to act, or how to communicate. Get online and do some research and, better yet, see if you can connect with someone at your school who has gone on the same program or spent time in the same country that you’re going to.

Try to understand the culture and the language as much as possible, because that’s ultimately going to give you a lot of benefits. Try to learn as much as you can about the culture, because that’s the first thing that’s going to hit you when you get off the plane in a new country. What’s really important, especially from my experience, is learning the language as much as you can beforehand. That really helps you know people and meet new friends.

— Matthew Jepsen, EMGIP

In addition to language and culture, it’s a good idea to do some research on your internship, including the company itself as well as the local workplace etiquette. 

Learn everything there is to know about your future project/internship. It makes an already difficult transition much easier, and you’ll be surprised how much better of an impression you’ll make with your employer.

— Ala Mansour, IAESTE

You may also want to brush up on terms and vocabulary that are relevant to your internship field. Many supervisors expect international interns to jump right in, and  you will need to be able to understand industry-specific terminology that you likely didn’t learn in Spanish 101.

Do research before you head abroad -- and make sure to learn relevant terminology in your host language! Photo credit Jaime Cameron
Do research before you head abroad — and make sure to learn relevant terminology in your host language! Photo credit Jaime Cameron

Make the Most of Your Free Time

It’s important to seek out new experiences and immerse yourself in your host community. After a long day at your internship, it may sometimes be hard to resist heading home to a couch and TV or internet. But resist anyway! You’re only abroad for a limited time. You have to work to get the most out of it and return home with great memories and new friendships.

Always seek out ways to make your experience positive. At the end of the day, what you do with your time abroad is up to you. Join clubs, find things you like doing, visit a new country, go hiking, meet new people, try new things! There’s really no limit on how much you can learn and experience.

— Dan Hiemstra, Cultural Vistas Summer Internship Program in Germany

A great way to try something new, meet locals, and learn and improve your language skills is to find a tandem partner or join a language social club.

I met random people from events such as Español Y Cerveza — which is Spanish and beer — where you go and talk in Spanish and drink beer. There’s also Ingles y Mate before that, so you can go there and look really cool because you know how to speak English.

— Quinci Paine, Cultural Vistas Internship Program in Argentina

Cultural Vistas alumnus Dan Hiemstra spent time hiking in Liechtenstein during his internship in Germany.
Explore. Try new things. Never stop seeking out new ways to have a great experience while interning abroad. Photo credit Dan Hiemstra

Take Initiative & Show Interest

An internship abroad is a huge undertaking. Why would you want to put in all that work to get somewhere and then coast through your internship? Your goals should be to learn and grow, to build new skills, and to come away from your internship with solid accomplishments and strong connections. All that won’t be handed to you; you have to put in the work to see the results.

Especially abroad, your boss and coworkers are not going to hover over you and make sure you’re constantly occupied. You must take initiative, be brave, and ask to learn more and be given increasingly difficult assignments. Nine times out of 10, your coworkers will be impressed with your desire to learn and make an impact.

— Katie Denton, Cultural Vistas Summer Internship Program in Spain

Taking initiative is a lot easier when you show your interest in the work you (and your colleagues) are doing. Showing an eagerness to learn and succeed will go a long way in making your supervisor, coworkers, and others want to help you get there.

Be enthusiastic! If you put in energy and excitement, you will earn so much in return. People respond well to others when they can tell how passionate they are, regarding both professional and personal goals. Don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with complete strangers. Sometime they have the most interesting things to say!

— Denise Blankenberger, Cultural Vistas Fellowship

Be enthusiastic and show your excitement for your international internship. Photo credit Denise Blankenberger
Be enthusiastic and show your excitement for your international internship. Photo credit Denise Blankenberger

Stay Positive & Take It One Day at a Time

Interning abroad forces you to step out of your comfort zone in just about every way possible. You have to adjust to a new country and new culture while completing new tasks in a new internship, possibly operating every day in a new language, and all the while also trying to make new friends. That being said, these challenges are also what make the experience worthwhile.

There will be ups and downs in an experience like this, but you just have to learn to roll with the punches and keep a positive attitude. If you keep this in mind, you will have an amazing experience gaining global perspective, which you wouldn’t be able to gain at home.

— Noelle Posniak, Summer Internship Program in Germany

Whenever things get difficult or overwhelming, it’s important to take a step back and remember to take things one day at a time. Becoming more flexible and adaptable is key not just abroad but in your everyday life.

There’s an expression in Spain, “poco a poco” (“little by little”). “Poco a poco” your language skills will get better and you’ll take on more responsibilities at work. “Poco a poco” you’ll learn your city’s hidden spots and the locals’ favorite tacos (swear words, not the food).

This is a really great feeling, but nothing that’s worth it comes easy, so you’re going to have to work hard every day to improve and constantly strive to learn more. Don’t be discouraged if you have an off day or are missing the comforts of home. If you put in the effort, you won’t only see new landscapes, but you’ll learn to see the world in a new way.

— Katie Denton, Cultural Vistas Summer Internship Program in Spain

Noelle Posniak poses with the Berlin Wall during her Internship Program in Germany.
Keep a positive attitude and roll with the punches to have a great international internship experience. Photo credit Noelle Posniak

One Last Thing: Have Fun!

While your primary reason for being abroad is gaining experience and performing well in your internship, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Many interns use their weekends to travel to other nearby cities or countries, but there’s nothing quite like learning your host city inside and out.

Interning abroad offers the opportunity for a unique international experience and rare cultural insights — if you seek them out. Try a new cafe every morning before work. Take a different route home or get off at a random stop and explore. Ask your colleagues for tips on things to see and do — they may invite you to join them for an activity or a home-cooked meal. Instant immersion!

When you put yourself out there and have fun, you may be surprised at the things you learn and the connections you form. More than just stories, you’ll return home with a new perspective, advanced global skills, lifelong friendships, and an enriched understanding of yourself and the world.

Want more? Read Katie Denton’s Open Letter to Future International Interns

Richard Bobo

Richard Bobo works to amplify the impact of public diplomacy by supporting, engaging and connecting Cultural Vistas' alumni around the world.
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