Setting Expectations for Your Program Abroad, Part I

11 - Puerta del Sol

As with most other services or businesses, all over our former interns and study abroad candidates have the opportunity to review their experience. This entry responds to the most salient issues that crop up in intern reviews.

Sometimes the biggest issues are ones that are totally avoidable with a little bit of preparation, research, and a tempering of expectations. Now let’s clarify, we’re not saying set the bar low… rather, set realistic expectations as opposed to over-romanticizing the idea of your travels. As almost any experienced traveler will tell you, there’s the good and the bad in every destination or travel experience; things rarely ever go as planned or as advertised.

And with that, let’s look at a couple of qualms we’ve heard over the years:

1. “I loved my program but I didn’t like the city I lived in.”

As a program provider, there’s not much we can do about this one, unfortunately. However, what we can say is that this is an easily preventable predicament.

Step 1: Do Your Research – if you’re going to be doing an international program in a foreign place, you’d better be prepared for what you signed up for! These days there aren’t any secrets with the internet; so take some time to do research outside of travel blogs and the sites/articles getting all the top hits on Google. Get firsthand knowledge or experiences from others. You can even see or watch street activity via Webcams to see what’s like to walk the streets everyday!

Step 2: Reflect – After doing your research, what are you supposed to do with all that new information? Well, it’s time to process it in the context of you. You know yourself better than anyone, so be honest with yourself… Will I like this city? Am I compatible with it? Can I adapt? What will I struggle most with? Some places are more agreeable than others when it comes to meshing certain personalities. So think about how you may fare in any particular destination. Either way, one thing we can guarantee you is that there isn’t any one place on the planet that absolutely has it all, bringing us to…

Step 3: Prepare Yourself  – Murphy’s Law: anything that can happen, will happen… especially in travel. Refer back to step 2, think about what you may have problems with but be ready and able to roll with the punches. We can’t stress this enough. Bottom line is there will be things you’ll have to deal with, what can separate a good experience from a bad one is the realization and mindset of “alright, this kind of sucks but it’s alright I’ll deal with it and everything is going to be ok.” Trust us, if some seemingly catastrophic event occurs, we’re willing to bet you’ll live through it. If anything, it will become a great travel story down the road.

2. “My internship wasn’t what I expected.”

Let’s first address this qualm by saying there are a host of different things not limited to the following that can affect your internship experience; how long you will be going for, what time of year it is, your previous experience, your Spanish skill level, and even how proactive you are upon your arrival. Now, let us elaborate:

Longer programs almost always are more beneficial to an internship experience. Let’s face it, companies are not going to give you VIPs (Very Important Projects) if you’re only there for a month. Conversely, they’re far more likely to give you meaningful work if you’ve spent time at the company, gotten to know the culture, and if they have gotten to know you also.

Time of year matters. Take Spain for instance, most North Americans like doing programs abroad in the summer time. However, in Spain the months of August are extremely slow. Businesses close down for days, have atypical operating hours, and it is not uncommon for bosses to be gone for weeks. So, adjust your program abroad time frame accordingly or temper those expectations if you plan on being there in the summer.

As with any position in the workforce, your skills (in this case, technical and language) count! Your company abroad will likely base your workload on the skills you possess. In other words, if this is the first and only experience you have in a given field with limited Spanish speaking ability… don’t expect to get those VIPs! Rather, work on the little things, turn your weaknesses into strengths. Give yourself the elemental skills in your field, get more comfortable in your Spanish speaking.

If you feel confident and want more work, be proactive! A past intern complained about not having anything to do. When we spoke to her supervisor, the supervisor responded with “Well, she was always in her cubicle and on the computer looking busy.” Companies, especially the larger ones, aren’t always going to stop everything and cater to a one or two month foreign intern. Sometimes we forget that even though this is our experience of a lifetime, this is just life going on for a Spanish, Chilean, Costa Rican, etc. company. If you want more projects and responsibility, approach your supervisor for it!

Above all else, how can I make my internship experience count? Don’t forget where you are… in a professional setting in a foreign land. Not many are privy to this opportunity. At the very least, learn as much as you can and take anything and everything in. Learn about the company’s culture, how people conduct themselves, how business operates in an international setting. Befriend a co-worker, learn as much as you can from them, inquire about the ins and outs of their job.  If you put your mind to it, there are an infinite amount of things you can take away from an international internship experience.