College graduates need an international perspective to be competitive in today's job market. Many will have to negotiate foreign cultures whether they work in the United States or abroad. As part of this continuing change, international college internships should now be viewed as steppingstones to career success.
Even though relatively few American students go on internships abroad, the number increased 133 percent from the 2003-4 to the 2008-9 academic years, according to the latest figures from the Institute of International Education, which looked at students who received credit for such programs.
Several trends have fueled the growth in international internships over the past decade. For one thing, more students and graduates are pursuing opportunities in Asia, given the weak economy in the United States.
In addition, international internships are increasingly becoming integrated with college service-learning programs. Student interns now work abroad in hospitals, orphanages, clinics, and schools. One Michigan State University student interned with Mumbai Magic Bus, a charity in India that mentors impoverished youth. Her experience assisted her in later working with a similar American nonprofit.
Yet while international internships can be valuable for students, it can be difficult for a college to carve out the time and personnel needed to manage them. The tasks include:
- Developing a meaningful academic experience that provides a cross-cultural education and differentiates an international internship from a domestic one.
- Creating opportunities that challenge students on academic, professional, social, and cultural levels.
- Establishing true partnerships that include adequate student commitment and universitywide engagement.
- Ensuring professional placements that match students' interests and have on-site supervision that lends academic credibility and quality control to the experience.
At Michigan State, we have worked on developing and refining our international-internship offerings. After 15 years of development, we now place about 135 students at internships, in 18 countries, each year.
We have focused on four aspects of internships to help overcome the challenges that we've outlined:
Relationships. A strong relationship with businesses and other organizations where the interns will work is necessary for a program to succeed. To help build those relationships, the university uses companies that facilitate overseas programs for colleges. These professional providers offer the most reliable and efficient means of establishing international internships. They provide a variety of important support, such as student orientation, emotional and cultural assistance, and emergency services.
Colleges must monitor the work of the providers and make sure they are meeting students' needs. The best way to ensure that placements match students' interests starts with clearly defined application instructions, including an essay, a résumé, and possibly an interview, so that the provider has a full picture of the student.
While professional providers are common in Western Europe and Australia, they are only now becoming prevalent in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. If students want to work in those regions, colleges will have to do more legwork to find the appropriate internship opportunities and service providers.
Structure. International internships can take a variety of forms. But whatever model a college offers, it is useful to develop academic courses that accompany a work experience and emphasize intercultural competency, setting goals, and self-assessment.
In addition, to make sure an international internship is meaningful, administrators should ask: What are the realistic expectations? Will the cross-culture exposure help students in the job market? How difficult is it to adapt to different environments?
In most cases colleges should train students in foreign-language conversational skills and business vocabulary. And even if foreign language is not a component, a course that examines local and regional history, culture, and politics could help students improve cross-cultural understanding and communication.
Academic integrity. Evaluation of the program is important. The university, the employer, the internship coordinator, and, if an academic project is required, the faculty supervisor must closely monitor content and quality.
Assessments of the internship should be done at different intervals. In the beginning, the intern and the employer should discuss their respective expectations. During the internship, the coordinator should contact the host employer to assess the intern's progress. The employer, in collaboration with the intern and the internship coordinator, should complete a formal written evaluation.
Ensuring that the program has sufficient academic credibility to challenge students is a must. To help, colleges can assign a major research paper under a faculty member's supervision, a paper supervised by the internship coordinator, or coursework that relates to the workplace.
The academic assignments help students to think analytically and critically about their experiences overseas, and allow their home institutions to assess what they have learned.
Resources. Administrators must ensure that resources, financial and otherwise, exist to properly support international internships. Large universities should create an office for both domestic and international internships, with a designated coordinator who will work closely with the internship coordinators in each academic unit. For smaller institutions, a single office to coordinate internships would suffice. That office would be responsible for administrative and academic procedures.
Adequate financial support is, of course, crucial. Whether international internships should be paid or unpaid has sparked a debate among employers and college administrators. The concern is that students from low-income families cannot take advantage of unpaid internships.
One solution is to subsidize the internships by increasing financial aid and program grants. Princeton University, Williams College, and Yale University, among other institutions, have assisted summer interns with bigger aid packages. Michigan State has designated specific scholarships for internships.
In addition, many alumni living overseas can be instrumental in providing contacts, low-cost housing, and information on fund-raising efforts to establish internships.
The message is clear. Whether a college is enhancing its internship programs or creating them from scratch, an international internship is a key component in a student's education. America's international competitiveness is at stake. If colleges include internships as part of their international agenda, a significant step would be taken to meet tomorrow's global job market.
Charles Gliozzo is director emeritus of the Office of Study Abroad at Michigan State University. He is a recent co-editor of the Directory of International Internships. Cindy Chalou is associate director of the Office of Study Abroad.