This summer, I am spending six weeks working in a newsroom in France as part of an internship program organized by Georgetown University’s French department. An internship abroad can be both formative and challenging, and it’s certainly an option to consider if you are someone interested in exploring foreign cultures and traveling while earning invaluable work experience.
In this article, you will find my takeaways from an internship abroad, the good and the bad.
Real-life Language Learning
I have spent 8 years studying French in the classroom, starting in middle school and continuing through my junior year of college. Last semester, I studied abroad in Bordeaux, France where I lived with a host family, took my coursework entirely in French, and signed a language pledge prohibiting me from using English with other Americans in the program. Needless to say, my French skills improved immensely. However, after two days as a newsroom intern, I realized I had a lot left to learn.
The academic setting–whether in the United States or in France–provides you with a relatively narrow vocabulary for finding your way around discipline-specific texts, presentations, and homework assignments. Interacting with French students abroad certainly boosted my casual conversation skills and taught me some crucial slang words and expressions.
But working in a professional environment made me realize that there are entire areas of the French language that I am entirely unfamiliar with. For instance, I had to learn newspaper jargon entirely from scratch. As any intern can attest, every profession has its own specific terminology. As a foreigner who sometimes struggles to pick up every word in a regular phrase, I had to ask a lot of questions and write down a lot of unfamiliar words.
Being thrown into an utterly unfamiliar linguistic atmosphere is a learning experience unlike any other. You quickly learn to think on your feet, follow a conversation based entirely on context and fill in the gaps later, and be comfortable with your (sometimes silly) mistakes.
An internship abroad also forces you to stay engaged during the work day, instead of tuning everything out and scrolling through your Twitter feed, because you can’t afford not to pay attention if you want to understand what’s going on.
A Less Stressful Environment
The United States has a notoriously workaholic culture. Most of us work long hours, rarely take longer than 20 minutes for lunch, and consider vacation a far-off dream. As an intern, you are often expected to be even more diligent, spend extra hours in the office, offer help on projects you’re unfamiliar with, and never complain.
Perhaps this is a uniquely European mentality, but working in France has felt like a vacation. Most French people take 1-2 hours to enjoy their lunch. Taking your time, savoring your food, and really unplugging from work-related duties is considered the norm here.
Few bosses expect you to put in over-time, particularly if you are there on an unpaid basis. In fact, the majority of the country adheres to a standard 35-hour work week–that’s only 7 hours per day! Physical and emotional well-being are always prioritized over work performance and efficiency.
So if you are tired of slaving away in an unlit corner “office” or exhausted from an intensive academic year and looking to catch a break, you should certainly consider an internship abroad as a less stressful option. Of course, I can only speak to French work culture, and you want to be sure you don’t end up in a foreign firm that’s more workaholic than the Americans.
Connections in a Foreign Country
Networking – we love it, we hate it, we praise it, and we dread it. Whatever your personal opinion of networking may be, you can’t deny that it is an important part of professional development.
Have many times have you been passed over for a position only to discover someone less qualified got the posting because they knew someone in the company who put in a good word for them? The reality of modern life is you need connections to jumpstart your career. And if you’re looking to launch a global career, what can be more useful (and impressive) than foreign connections?
Interning abroad offers you the opportunity to build relationships in another country, which may come in handy should you decide to return there one day. If you are someone who is choosing to spend several months in a foreign country, away from your family and friends, I can only assume that you are passionate about that country’s culture.
As such, you may very well be considering a potential career abroad, or at the very least a temporary posting in your dream destination. Participating in a summer internship allows you to form those connections early and have contacts handy for when you’re planning a second trip in the future. As a bonus, should you ever return as a tourist, you will always have people to grab dinner with!
Letters of Recommendation
Interning abroad does have a few potential downsides compared to spending the summer in the U.S. When it comes to internships, most college students are looking not only to learn about the industry and “try out” a career but also to secure those letters of recommendations to show off to future employers or graduate schools.
An internship abroad comes with an obvious caveat – oftentimes, your employer will not speak English. In practical terms, that means that you may need to have their recommendations translated. Many employers these days do not accept self-translated recommendations, as they prefer these documents to be confidential and want to prevent any potential tampering by the applicant. You may need to go through the process of obtaining a professional translation for your recommendation, which can be a considerable hassle.
Another linguistic barrier comes with asking your employer to serve as a reference. Even more so than with recommendations, serving as a reference requires your employer to be able to speak to your personality and employability. Of course, many companies today, particularly those global enough to hire foreign interns, will likely have a staff proficient in English. However, you may not be fully sure until you get there.
Most journalists in the newsroom where I work are proficient in basic, conversational English, but they would certainly not be able to pen a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference without assistance. So, if recommendations are a make-or-break feature of any summer internship for you, you may be better off seeking a position in the U.S. or an English-speaking country.
Money, Money, Money
Last but not least, your internship abroad will likely be unpaid. Most countries do not allow individuals entering on a tourist visa to take on paying work. In order to be able to work for a foreign company, you would need to go through a length paperwork process to allow your employer to reimburse you for your trouble.
As a high school or college student, you would likely be applying for the summer, making the hassle less worthwhile to any potential employer. Some employers will seek to circumvent this problem by offering different types of payment to their interns. In my case, the internship I hold is unpaid, but I receive free room and board by staying with a local host family. However, I did have to pay my own airfare to and from France, which can be a sizeable financial commitment for many students. Ultimately, it is up to you to figure out if the benefits of an internship abroad outweigh the potential costs.
Interning abroad can be an exciting way to spend your summer, and it is an option you should definitely consider, especially if your school or university offers programs that facilitate such exchanges. While extremely useful to boosting your language skills, experiencing a new work environment, and building global connections, an internship abroad also comes with potential professional and financial costs that you should keep in mind as you make your decision.
Whatever you choose, keep in mind that your summer experiences should never feel like a chore–find something you’re passionate about and have fun doing it!
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