As Overseas Internships Grow, So Do Challenges for College Officials

June 03, 2010

In recent years the lines between studying abroad and working abroad have blurred. More students seek jobs overseas during their summers, pursue international internships for credit, or add in a few hours of work during a semester studying in another country.

That presents challenges for colleges as they struggle to keep up with the growing complexity of these arrangements and the increased interest among students in getting some international work experience under their belts.

At the annual conference here of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, at least a half-dozen sessions are focusing on the topic of managing successful internships or, more broadly, strengthening the link between students' experiences abroad and their career prospects at home.

"Students are a little bit ahead of some of us in the field, and they're already blending in their heads work and study programs," says Cheryl Matherly, associate dean for global education at the University of Tulsa. "And we're catching up with that."

The hurdles of setting up or tracking internships abroad are many, which may be why the overall numbers remain low. Fewer than 14,000 students participated in internships or work abroad for credit in the 2007-8 academic year, according to the Washington-based Institute of International Education. Still, that represents a 70-percent increase from just five years earlier. Those figures also underreport the trend as they do not count students who work abroad without seeking academic credit for their experience.

Study-abroad officials say that, without a doubt, students are looking harder for internships abroad that may help them get a leg up in a bleak job market.

"Students have finally understood that their competition is not the school down the road, it's a global competition," says Daniela Ascarelli, director of study abroad at Drexel University. "You can't compete if you've never left your region or your country."

Employers, too, are scanning résumés in search of international experience. Diana B. Carlin, a professor in the department of communications studies at University of Kansas, and former director of the university's office of international programs, said that was clear during a roundtable Nafsa convened last fall on work-force preparedness.

Ms. Carlin said at the roundtable, which included representatives from local universities, businesses, and the chamber of commerce, "corporate members were saying we really need people with international experience, not just study abroad."

Out of that conversation came her session scheduled for today on the changing landscape of international internships, where presenters from the university and from Black & Veatch Corporation, a global engineering and construction company with headquarters in Kansas, will discuss how to set up partnerships with businesses to develop internships for students.

A common challenge, though, is that there is no one template for how internships are structured, which is reflected in the many different types of presenters at the Nafsa conference.

On one end of the spectrum are organizations like the German Academic Exchange Service, more commonly known by its German abbreviation, DAAD. Through its government-sponsored internships, students are paid to work in research laboratories, media companies, or the German parliament.

Peter Kerrigan, deputy director of DAAD's New York office, said that this year the organization received more than 1,100 applications for about 360 slots in its undergraduate Research Internships in Science and Engineering program, known as RISE.

At the other end of the spectrum, students may pay a company thousands of dollars to find them a suitable position in a company abroad. The cost typically includes securing a visa, housing, and networking opportunities.

Yan Liao, president of Abroad China, runs such a group. Based in Virginia, his company sends nearly 200 students to China each year to work at one of 2,000 companies with which he has developed relationships. He is careful to choose employers for whom an English-speaking employee is a benefit, he says.

Another presenter, CDS International, is a nonprofit that offers both fellowships and internships, paid and unpaid, in countries such as Germany, Russia, and Argentina.

Getting Credit

One of the most complex factors with internships, speakers said, has to do with academic credit. Sometimes students fall into the trap of lining up internships on their own, particularly in the summer, then discover that they cannot receive academic credit for them because the college or department has no system in place to recognize work abroad.

Anna Oberle-Brill, a senior program manager at CDS International, says the organization talks with professors to see what kinds of work would qualify for credit, but that the due diligence is ultimately up to the student.

"We stress very, very much that students have to deal with all of that before they leave," she says.

Several presenters said that students may have unrealistic expectations, both as they look for an internships and once they begin working. As a result, it's important to build in advising time both during the application process and before students leave the country.

Students typically want to work in a big city at a major company, presenters said. In Germany "everyone wants to go to Berlin or a name-recognition company," says Mr. Kerrigan of the DAAD. "But more often than not, if you're working for a small company in a small city in Germany, you're the only intern and your portfolio might be a lot richer."

Working abroad may have some of the same elements of studying abroad but requires much more independence, presenters noted. Study-abroad programs, says Ms. Oberle-Brill, can come with a fair amount of "hand holding."

But in the working world, students are very much on their own in figuring out what is culturally appropriate. How do you dress for work? Is it OK to accept an offer to go out for drinks with your boss? Should you make tea, if that's not part of your job description?

The last example, says Ms. Ascarelli, is a good reminder that what might appear odd to an outsider might be perfectly reasonable within the workplace, if, for example, everyone in the office makes tea. Plus, she advises students, you can chat up your supervisors as you make your way around the office.

Mr. Liao says that American students sometimes have trouble with office politics. "Here we encourage people to ask questions," he says. "But in China you don't really question your supervisor in front of other people. Other issues you don't really resolve in the office but have dinner or coffee to resolve it." 

Making Your Case

Internships are appealing to students for an obvious reason: they want to parlay that experience into a job.

But making your case to a prospective employer isn't as easy as it seems, presenters say. One trap students — and college officials — can fall into is to assume that the internship sells itself. That's not necessarily the case.

To better prepare students to explain their experiences abroad to prospective employers, some colleges are building closer ties between their study abroad and career services offices. Ms. Matherly, who spoke yesterday on that topic, said that Tulsa offers workshops for students on marketing their experiences abroad, both study and work.

"So often a student will focus on, 'So I was in France and it was great and the food was great.' That waters down the experience for an employer: 'Oh, the student just backpacked around Europe,'" she says.

By tying the two offices together, she notes, the career center understands better what happens in study or work abroad, while study-abroad officials learn how to translate those experiences into concepts employers respect.

"Students really relate to it," Ms. Matherly says of these workshops. "To take them through these exercises of transferrable skills, they really understand that."

Brook Blahnik, coordinator of international programs at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said that a recent survey of employers highlights this potential disconnect.

The study, which he discusses at Nafsa on Thursday in a session on how employers understand international experiences, surveyed 1,200 companies in Minnesota, from local businesses to multinational corporations. Employers were asked how they view various co-curricular activities, including volunteer work and studying abroad. While internships rated well (respondents were not asked specifically about international internships) foreign study ranked relatively low on the list.

That, says Mr. Blahnik, suggests that employers aren't going to assume such experiences were relevant to the job at hand—particularly recruiters, who tend to place less emphasis on international experience than CEO's do.

He says it's important, then, for international-study offices not to simply say to students "this is going to look great on your résumé." Rather, students "really have to articulate what they did and why it's relevant to the position they're applying for."

In the end, strong internships do seem to give students a leg up among the competition, international administrators say. Even the most humbling of work experiences abroad provides students with an education about the working world beyond what they could get at home.

"There's a culture shock within the culture of work," notes Ms. Ascarelli. "But it's the kind of culture shock you're looking for."