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How to rethink this internship thing and gain international work experience while still in college.

More and more college students are completing at least one internship before they graduate. An internship is a work experience performed most often as a college student for a specified period of time, usually no longer than 6 months. Internships can be paid or unpaid and vary in quality (not unlike real jobs). Students can usually draw on their university’s career center or other campus resources to help find an internship, but the experience of getting one is much like that of getting a regular job. Most of the time, applicants will submit a resume, cover letter, and references, plus have at least one interview. Some internships are extremely competitive and prestigious — others not so much, but that doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t be a terrific experience. Why have an internship, you ask? Because having practical work experience in your field and on your resume while still an undergrad is highly desirable. It often isn’t even the work experience itself, but it’s the network you are creating and the impressions you are making that can really move your career options forward. Many times it is truly who you know, not what you know, that makes the difference between landing an interview or not.

What would you say if I said you can get an internship outside the US? True, it’s not as easy as getting one on your home turf, but consider the possibilities: travel, foreign language skills, a global network. Do I have your attention? If you are thinking, “I love this idea, but I have no clue where to even begin a project like this,” then look no further. Helping young adults connect with internship opportunities is what I do, so read on.

Assess your financial reality:

The thing about an international internship is that, as an American, unless you have working papers in another country, such as an EU passport, you are most likely looking at an unpaid opportunity. Why? Because the rules in various countries about foreigners working are very strict and non-negotiable. If you get caught working without the proper permission (which is many times impossible to get as a foreigner) you will be kicked out of the country. This is something you don’t want to mess with. So if you need to, save up for the experience like you would a study abroad trip or other travel.

Know your options:

There are plenty of services available if you are willing and able to pay that will find and facilitate your internship for you. These services can be very expensive, but they make it much easier. One service that’s less red carpet and more affordable is ELI Abroad. They offer internship placement in 24 countries in fields ranging from architecture to special education. Talk to your campus career center and study abroad office for ideas on other placement services as well if this option seems right for you.

The DIY Internship:

When I talk to my students about this idea of an overseas internship, I stress that part of the experience is actually going after and landing the internship. It’s the journey, not the destination where you learn the most. If you are up for it, it is entirely possible to find a good internship abroad on your own. A few things to get you started:

  • Use all your resources. Uncle Joe, the next door neighbor, and Mom’s co-worker all may have connections that could get you abroad, so start talking to people about your plans.  A computer will also be critical in your internship search.  When it comes time for an interview, you are likely to use a platform like Skype, so make sure you know how to use them in advance.
  • Find out what your university has to offer. For example, you may find out one of the study abroad programs you are considering has an optional internship component. Ask questions until you get some helpful answers on campus.
  • Research. Are there international organizations you admire or a company you would love to work for? Research those entities to discover what internship programs they offer. Look at everything because you may find that an American company has international opportunities you didn’t even know about.
  • Email reflectors. This is a fancy name for an email list. Get on as many as you can that pertain to your areas of interest. One example is EuroBrussels. If you are interested in working in Europe, just sign up, and a large list of internships, entry level, and other professional positions will appear in your inbox regularly.
  • Negotiate. The students in my Global Studies degree program are not allowed to have paid internships for  reasons already discussed, but they have been the grateful recipients of stipends, housing, transportation, plane tickets, and other perks that aren’t regular pay but make a big difference. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Insurance. Buy travel insurance that includes evacuation coverage. Don’t leave home without it. Most American insurance plans will not cover illnesses and accidents abroad. The good news is this type of insurance is quite affordable.
  • Be clear about your expectationsJust as an employer will outline what they expect from an intern, it’s professional and appropriate for you to have expectations of your internship. Make a written list of learning goals for the experience and any other take-aways you would really like and discuss these with your supervisor before you start.
  • Understand your limits. What kind of internship makes the most sense for you? Do you want to improve your language skills or do you really need to work someplace where English is spoken? Are you intimidated by a big city or bored by smaller towns? Can you picture your life without a dishwasher or even an indoor toilet? Getting honest with yourself will help you to make the best choice you can and to avoid culture shock so great that you can’t function effectively.
  • Culture. Know key phrases, cultural norms, working conditions, customs, and pitfalls about the place you are going to work. Do your homework before you go to avoid as much misunderstanding and as many ugly American moments as possible!

Above all, understand what you are getting yourself into. With any internship, make sure to ask a lot of questions and know how to take care of yourself in a new culture. Things like opening a bank account or renting an apartment can be tricky. Talking to an existing intern or a native of the country you are going to is smart because insider information makes for a smoother transition. Getting connected to someone is something your host should be able to help you with.  Remember if you want college credit for your overseas internship, talk to your academic advisor at your school about the process. Never make any assumptions. Finally, check out the International Careers Toolkit on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s library website for information about all things related to working overseas. Good Luck!

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