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Like an internship at home, not every internship abroad will be the most fun and amazing time of your life, but it should be a meaningful learning experience. We all have expectations of how an experience will be, and international experiences often have the highest expectations of all.
If you find yourself in an internship abroad that isn’t what you wanted, there are a number of things you can do to remedy the situation. From taking steps to make the most of your internship, we’re here to help you with the actions to take when things aren’t quite right.
First, Assess The Situation
Before you take any action, allow yourself some time to take a step back from the situation and reflect upon what’s really wrong. Are you feeling unsatisfied with the work you’re doing, your relationship with colleagues, or is it something more serious, like sexual harassment or feeling unsafe in your workplace? Depending on the answer, there are very different ways you’ll need to handle the situation.
Also make sure that it’s the internship that’s the problem, and not a different aspect of your experience. Are you really unhappy because of something else, like your housing situation? Is it a long commute, rude roommates, or an unsafe location that is bothering you? Are you feeling burnt out from working full time? Are you having trouble adjusting to the local culture, environment or general homesickness?
Try To Fix The Problem
Some problems aren’t as big as you think. Part of the point of going abroad is having to face challenges on your own and push yourself out of your comfort zone.
If you feel like you’re nothing more than a glorified barista at your internship, are getting bad vibes from your colleagues, or are facing longer (or shorter) hours or less pay/benefits than you were promised, it’s easy to think that there’s nothing you can do but leave and find something else. But many times, the solution is something as simple as speaking up. Some ways you can try and fix your problem:
Talk it out
Ask your supervisor if you can schedule a meeting, and talk to them about what’s concerning you.
Sometimes what seems like a purposeful wrong is actually a miscommunication. If you’re being asked to work 40 hours instead of the agreed-upon 30, or being sent home early every day, or are facing issues with pay, stipends, housing or other promised compensation, bring these issues up to your supervisor (or an HR person) immediately. More often than not, this is an accidental oversight or misunderstanding that can easily be rectified.
Adjust your attitude
Are you looking for things to dislike about your internship? Are you mad you don’t have enough work, then annoyed when you’re assigned a task? Do you think things are beneath you that (*gasp*) maybe aren’t?
It’s important to remember that you do have to pay some dues and work hard to get to the good stuff. You need to put yourself out there, try hard, and show how capable you are. It’s also important to remember you won’t always love everything.
If you don’t like your internship at all, feel disconnected from your colleagues, or if you find yourself interning in an aspect of your field that you don’t enjoy, you have to decide if it’s worth uprooting yourself from or if it’s something you should ride out. Yes, it’s cliche, but this will be a learning experience. And a lot of times, things do get better.
Often you just need to give yourself time to adjust. You never know if maybe with time you’ll grow to enjoy the work you’re doing or new tasks you take on further into the internship. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes the problem is with you, and a change in perspective or attitude is the only thing that can improve your situation.
Bring the problem to your program provider
If you’re interning abroad through an internship placement organization or program provider, this should make things a little easier for you. Part of the reason people pay program fees and go through a provider is to have some support in these kinds of situations.
If there’s an in-country contact person, make an appointment to meet with them as soon as possible. They’ll have the local insight, and likely the experience, to deal with whatever problems you’re facing.
You want to be sure you’re not dealing with a simple miscommunication or misconstruing actions or events that are actually cultural norms. And you want to be sure that you handle any sensitive issues the right way, rather than burning bridges, causing offense, or making a situation worse.
If there isn’t an on-the-ground person you can speak with, many providers have a 24/7 support line. Of course, this is for emergencies, so don’t misuse this service if you don’t need to. Get on your provider’s website (or look though your orientation materials) and find the appropriate contact information. Call or email the appropriate person with your concerns.
If you aren’t with a program provider, or if you are not receiving the assistance you need, you may also want to contact your home university.
Remember, You Have Options
At the end of the day, you have specific reasons for interning abroad and your internship should be helping you accomplish those goals. Just remember that you have to put in the effort to get the experience you want, but if your internship falls far too short of your (realistic!) expectations or puts you in an uncomfortable position, you do have options.
Hopefully you never find yourself in such a situation, but if you do, we hope the above steps will help you change the course of your international internship experience and return home stronger, smarter, more fulfilled, and without regrets.