How to Intern Abroad like a Boss

Interning abroad is a completely different experience than studying abroad, obviously. You can’t hide in the back of the lecture hall because you’re bored or slightly hung over. You will be constantly kicking yourself for not having paid more attention in second year German. You will be giving your best efforts to produce quality work by another culture’s standards (most likely for free). You’re handed tasks that range from doing dishes to doing things beyond your job title, often resulting in confusion and anxiety. However, if the first week jitters subside and your internship is falling short of your expectations, it helps to know how to turn the tables in your favor.

This is your experience. It’s a resume, character and overall life builder! Hopefully, my story of interning this summer in Berlin may be able to offer some helpful pointers in making the most of your experience.

The Internship: I landed a marketing/event-planning internship for a company that hosts yoga retreats around Europe. I have been practicing yoga for 10 years so, naturally, this opportunity was a dream come true.  Even my schedule is incredible! Six hour work days, Monday-Thursday with the occasional weekend event for 10 weeks total, smack-dab in the middle of Europe. Dream job, right? Well, not after the first week.

My Boss(es): The owners are a husband and wife team with only a handful of employees. The husband, Stefan, was a monk in India for six years. His smile is contagious and he knows every person who walks in the studio by name, nickname, occupation or whatever else they’re willing to share with him. He encourages me to attend as many yoga classes as I want (free of charge) and always buys my lunch if I pick up something for him. He even told me I could book a weekly massage with any of the massage therapist if I was ever feeling stressed. Needless to say, he’s a gem.

His wife on the other hand, established a very different dynamic with me.  During my second day of work, she simply walked me over to the yoga studio, pointed at a dim fluorescent light in the ceiling and in her stern German words, commanded me to, “fix it.” She then pointed at the linen closet and walked away. In the closet I found a ladder. I thought, OK, let’s give this a try.

After struggling for a while, I asked a male co-worker for help. He simply said, “Get down from there. It needs a new bulb, you can’t fix it,” and continued to tell me about Bernie, the studio’s maintenance man who handles these sorts of things. Needless to say, we were both confused as to why I was asked in the first place.

The next day, the owner’s wife asked me to design/order some thank you cards for her wedding guests (the owners married one month before my arrival) and handed me a CD which held 700 wedding photos.  I was secretly excited to rummage through a stranger’s photos (as any respectable girl would be) but once I actually started to work on the assignment, I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment. Was this what my amazing summer internship was going to be? Of course, a little light cleaning work around the studio is to be expected but – wedding cards? That’s so … personal. Wrestling with fluorescent light bulbs on ladders? Where’s Bernie, the maintenance man?

Where’s my dream internship I had been telling all my friends about? I was looking at 700 photos of strangers and I felt lost in the crowd. This was officially a problem.

The answer came when I realized that Stefan and Miriam had very different definitions of the word intern. Stefan, knew that I was a business major and that I wanted to get my hands dirty and practice my theoretical understandings of marketing and business expansion. His wife however, thought that my free labor was synonymous with volunteering/assisting her, personally. Once this became clear, I realized that Stefan was not going to stand up for me (can’t blame him). I knew I had to address this with Miriam, woman-to-woman and I immediately felt nervous.

On the second day of my second week, Miriam seemed annoyed and asked me why the light was still not fixed. I took this opportunity to call a meeting with her in the back office. I calmly asked if we could communicate this meeting in English and she obliged. My pitch was short; about two minutes. I told her that we need to get on the same page as to what my job will be for the next nine weeks. I had strategically placed my internship contract in my back pocket as evidence to plead my case. I showed her the four bullet points which clearly stated my duties with her signature beneath.

  • Social media and SEO marketing
  • Planning and execution of off site events
  • Admin work
  • High quality customer service

She looked at the letter, looked at me, and in that moment, there was a shift. A few more thoughts were exchanged as I reassured her that I very much wanted to be a part of her company but not at the expense of a real business experience. I wanted to prove my value and she recognized that.

From that moment on, I’ve only been assigned business related tasks and Miriam’s demeanor is friendly and appreciative. She now has me running all social media accounts and updating the business’s google page. I was even able to work from my apartment designing marketing materials for the upcoming yoga retreats.  Sure, I still fold towels and dust the shelves in the lobby once a week. The difference now is that I am also doing things that have relevance to growing a business. I am able to practice what I’ve been reading about in textbooks and I am able to reclaim my dream internship and my dream summer.

Stephanie Dunbar is an international business major. She is interning abroad in Berlin for the summer.

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