Last summer, I stepped out of the elevator and onto the 8th floor of a modern office building located in downtown Brussels. I was still deliriously tired from the jet-lag and frazzled from the mad dash I had made across several city blocks as I tried to find the correct building. But, here I was. I had finally made it and now I would have an entire summer of living and interning on my own in Belgium. As a college student who was about to enter her senior year, this felt like my first real taste of adulthood.
Things felt almost too perfect. And if I was a famous influencer posting photos of myself eating Belgian chocolate as I lounged in the centre of the Grand Place, I would probably make you believe that it actually was perfect. But the truth about interning in a different country is that there’s a lot of work behind the “play,” and stress can creep its way into your routine just as easily as it would if you were back at home.
My summer spent interning in Brussels was one of the best experiences I had during my college career and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. But it also came with plenty of important life-lessons that I wish I could have prepared myself to experience in advance. So, I’ve compiled some of that experience into five pieces of advice for other students who are looking to intern abroad, too.
Research your company and country before the first day: With any job, internship, or interview that you have in life, it is common sense that you should have a bit of background knowledge on the company beforehand. When you’re working in a foreign country, it is especially important that you learn about the culture, language, and general environment before you show-up. Research the lifestyles of the community and try to read about the work-styles of people already there. There’s also no harm in asking to schedule an information session with your supervisor, if they don’t already offer you one, to clarify what the dress-code and expectations are at your internships. This will help you pack smarter and make a great impression on your first day!
It’s not the same as a vacation: One of the greatest misconceptions I had about interning abroad was the amount of free-time I would have during my work week. My supervisor was incredibly flexible with allowing me a Friday, or Monday off if I had plans to travel, but on the whole I was working from 9:00-5:30 every weekday. This meant that, by the time I got off work, a lot of the museums and attractions I wanted to see were already closed. Before you leave for your internship, make a laundry-list of things that you want to explore in your free time and what weekend trips you may want to take. If you are strategic with your time off, you will be able to see everything you want to. Plus, your supervisor will appreciate you communicating your plans in advance. Interning abroad gives you a special insight into what it really feels like to live in that country, which you just don’t get as a tourist. Take advantage of this unique opportunity, but be proactive in planning your adventures after work so that you can fully explore your temporary international home, too.
Embrace the work culture: Every company environment will be different, even within the same city. And having a “culture shock” adjustment period when you travel to a new place is real, especially when you’re working internationally, too. Take the time to observe the behaviour of your co-workers, or look for a mentor in the office who can show you the ropes, if you aren’t assigned one. At my office in Brussels, it was expected that everyone would eat lunch together at the large table in the office kitchen instead of eating alone at their desks. As an introvert that values small amounts of alone-time to recharge during the day, I was worried that this would be difficult to get used to. After my first week, I began to look-forward to lunch every day because it was the best way to bond with my coworkers and learn about their lives. By my third week, a few of them were even teaching me French. One of the greatest appeals of interning abroad is that it is different from the ‘norm’ of working in your home country. Allow yourself the chance to embrace the change.
The internship is what YOU make of it: In other words, you’ll only get out of the experience what you are willing to put into it. If you walk into work with a poor attitude and a mindset that you want to get through the day as quickly as possible, you will lose so much of what makes your internship unique. There are so many opportunities to work with coworkers who speak multiple languages and come from diverse cultures. Be bold in volunteering to assist with projects that take you out of your comfort-zone instead of sitting at your desk and watching the clock tick by. If you find yourself with ideas, or see something that you could do, it never hurts to take initiative and ask to help. Not only will this open up your internship to new people and experiences, but it will mean more to future employers if you can point to specific things you accomplished during your internship instead of relying solely on the fact that it was abroad.
You are your own best advocate: At the end of the day, you are the person who knows yourself the best. If you feel like you have too many assignments piling up, you should never feel afraid to speak up and say so. It’s unlikely your coworkers will have a detailed list of everything on your workload, so they might come to you for help without even realising how much you are already doing. It is always better to be honest about the tasks you have than to fall apart under the pressure of deadlines and additional stress. In my experience, many European companies understand the balance of work and personal lives and will be impressed with a student who is able to speak-up when they are overworked. Remember, any internship, whether domestic or international, should be a positive work experience, designed to help you enhance your skills, resume and portfolio.