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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Interning Abroad

This past summer, I participated in an internship program in Israel for college students from the U.S. Though I had lived in Greece for three months during my first semester of college, and had previous experience traveling all around the world, my experience was nothing like I thought it would be. I eventually learned that in order to make the best out of my situation, I had to change my perspective. Here is what I wish I had known before committing to the program.

1. Working abroad is very different from studying abroad

I’ve traveled all around the world, including living in Israel for a month when I was a junior in high school, and studying abroad in Greece for the first semester of my freshman year of college. So when I applied for this internship program, I believed I was more than experienced in terms of living abroad. However, one of the most difficult realities to come to terms with was realizing that studying abroad and interning abroad are actually very different.

In both cases, no one is getting paid (at least for my situation) and you’re adjusting to a different culture, but that’s where most of the similarities end. When studying abroad, you can miss a day or two of classes to travel to other cities or countries — during my study abroad program, we were allowed to miss six sessions of each class, which led to me missing almost every Friday class in order to catch flights (never feelings.) But when interning or working abroad, you usually have to work five days a week, and if you miss a workday, you must make up for it. With a strict five day work week, you face a 48-hour time constraint for any travel, which can make things hard. But this time constraint can also be a great thing. It may limit the distance you cover, but it will force you to embrace the city and country you’re living in, which is something I wish I had made more time for when I lived in Greece.

In terms of friendships, I found it much more difficult to bond with my peers when we all worked for different companies across the city. The only time we had together was after work, but most of us lived apart and worked different hours. But if you’re lucky, you’ll become close friends with your coworkers, which is an experience of its own. 

 2. Learn about the work culture beforehand

Depending on the region of the world, workplace culture and behavior can contrast incredibly from that of the U.S. Western Culture tends to follow a strict, work-appropriate code in nearly every aspect of the job, including how you dress, the vernacular you use, your work-day hours, and the physical and personal exchanges between superiors and workers. But in other parts of the world, particularly the Mediterranean and the Middle East, workplace culture couldn’t be more different. But sometimes, that makes the work experience more enriching.

People living in the Mediterranean and the Middle East are stereotypically known for being all up in each others’ business, and that doesn’t change in a place of business. Co-workers and superiors usually have close relationships, meaning they go out for coffee and meals together and discuss their personal lives with one another. My bosses would sometimes take part in a series of discussions that would last several hours when we should have been working instead. Israeli supervisors in particular were usually very lenient when letting my peers and I arrange our work schedules. Also, the typical work-wear was more laid back than in American offices. For example, I didn’t have to wear a dress, skirt, or work-pants most of the time. When I was being interviewed for my internships, I’d ask the supervisor about the workplace dress code. Almost every single one replied, “just don’t wear a bathing suit.” 

But no matter what country you’re in, more often than not, workplace superiors want interns to get as much out of their experience as you can. You alone know what you’re looking for. All you have to do is ask, and with the help of your superiors, you can make the most out of your intern experience.

3. Having a support system will save your life — sometimes literally. 

 Adjusting to a new culture, surrounded by unfamiliar people, foods, and languages, all while attempting to institute a new routine can be emotionally and physically draining, as well as alienating. Put a time difference into the mix, and you have a recipe for adventure, or disaster. For me, the idea of having a fresh start and the chance to throw myself into a different cultural community is exciting, and encourages me to make the most out of my time. But for others, it can be detrimental mentally, which is why it is crucial to have a support system.

Whether that means calling your parents and closest friends every other day, connecting with family friends near you, or even turning to your roommate or  coworkers, human minds release dopamine when experiencing human interaction. Therefore, meaningful social connections will enhance one’s experience abroad and can even truly save a life. 

4. Take advantage of every opportunity

One of the best parts of living abroad is that you are FREAKIN’ LIVING ABROAD! No matter how many times you go somewhere, there are endless lessons to be learned, places to see, food to eat, and people to meet. I don’t mean to tell you what to do, but if you don’t live spontaneously while in a foreign setting, you will miss out on things that could have been some of the greatest moments of your life. So whether that means waking up at three in the morning to climb a mountain just to catch the sunrise, forcing yourself out of bed after work to attend a wine tasting, hiking nearly ten miles in one day on a trip planned literally an hour before you left, spending a fifth of your paycheck on Russian ballet concert tickets, letting go of previous plans for a night full of possibility, or forgetting about your diet to try a traditional Viennese dessert, you will not regret taking advantage of all these once in a lifetime experiences.

5. No matter how amazing/god-awful of a time you have, you need to learn to turn it into a learning experience. 

No experience abroad will be perfect, especially when you are working. BUT, it’s always important to look back on your experience and see how you’ve grown, no matter how great or poor your time there was. Living abroad pushes you in different ways than college does. You learn about your adaptability and your willingness to live spontaneously. You become more comfortable with traveling, and hopefully you enhance your self-advocacy skills. 

Hopefully, you will also make a bunch of connections living abroad, whether that be professional, within the community, or even with a deeper level of yourself. But most of all, you connect with the world around you, and will gain a worldly perspective that you can carry with you everywhere you go.

Paige Stern

Northeastern '23

Paige Stern is a second year at Northeastern University. She is currently pursuing a BA in journalism with a minor in media production. Paige is passionate about travel, dogs, and the arts (particularly the dance and culinary aspects.)
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