When and where did you intern abroad?
I interned in Huacho, Peru from September, 2011 until January, 2012, and then Lima, Peru from January, 2012 until April, 2012.
What made you want to intern abroad?
It was a mandatory component of my undergraduate degree (which focused on environmental studies and international development). Everyone in my program had to complete an eight-month field placement (volunteer internship) to graduate. But gaining more international experience was one of the main reasons I chose this program.
How did you conduct your search? What made you select your program?
My university decided everyone must apply through World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to find an internship. I wanted to go somewhere in Latin America to improve my Spanish language skills, and since Peru was the only country offered in that linguistic region of the world, my choice was easy! Then I looked at which grad school programs were of interest to help me select what I wanted to do for eight months. For the first five months of my internship, I worked for the local water utility conducting environmental assessments in a desert town three hours north of Lima, and then I transferred to the Ministry of Environment in Lima. (I had to move due to staff changes at my first internship)
Did anyone help you with pre-departure application and preparation?
WUSC led us through a two-day pre-departure session, and we completed an online pre-departure workshop offered by DFATD. Neither was particularly helpful for me. They were generic sessions about going abroad, so they didn’t answer many of my questions regarding Peru.
What was the intern application process like? What made you successful?
I just had to be truthful, and really figure out what I wanted to get out of the experience. Before leaving for Peru I had a Skype interview in Spanish with the local WUSC staff. I was nervous, but with some quick review of my intermediate Spanish classes I was able to pull it off!
What was the biggest surprise about your intern experience abroad?
The lack of continuity. By my sixth week into my first internship, I was the person with the most seniority in my department. There were constantly people being hired, fired, leaving or transferring between departments. Projects would start, stop, change hands and get lost. It felt incredibly inefficient. After four months, I had cycled through three completely different sets of colleagues, and our office had been cut from 15 down to five (including myself and two other local interns)!
Did you participate in extra-curricular or social activities while interning abroad? If so, how did they differ from social activities in your home culture?
I started going to a gym so that I could get some exercise, and spent a lot of time with my colleagues outside of work hours. The gym was very similar to what I was used to at home, and it was nice to meet people in a context that I was already familiar with while staying in shape. I also attended a wake (a mass for someone's death), a girl's 15th birthday party, friends' birthdays, a secret Santa gift exchange, Christmas parties, and fundraisers and more. One thing I noticed was that timing didn’t seem to matter to locals. Things would start late, and you always seemed to end up eating a big meal REALLY late – like a three-course meal at 1am for the girl's 15th birthday! Another interesting thing I found is that they never ate the cake at people's birthdays. There was always a really nicely decorated cake, but then they would take pictures with it and put it away. I guess they brought it home. I'm not sure why people would want such a big cake to themselves, but that's how things worked! Secret Santa was pretty similar to what I'm used to, except that ALL of the women in the office received a purse, since the person organizing the gift exchange had a friend who owned a purse shop and so he told all of the men to go there to buy their presents
What made your experience abroad a success?
My language skills - granted, when I arrived in Peru my Spanish was not excellent, but I was not afraid to try, and speak, and make mistakes and keep trying. Some people just didn't think I could speak Spanish; others were patient. By the end of my eight months, I could have arguments, write official documents and speak on the phone in Spanish. Not to mention negotiate a taxi fare so that I’d be charged a fair price!
What international career skills did you develop?
Communication skills, interpersonal skills, adaptability, confidence, motivation, time management skills, organizational skills and perseverance.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your internship?
I made one close Peruvian friend who I was able to talk to easily and who understood me to a certain extent. Through him, I was able to voice my opinion on certain topics and have open conversations. He helped show me some of the local values, and to distinguish what behaviors were because of cultural differences or because of personal differences. My willingness to speak to new people and learn also helped me.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
Always make sure the message has been properly understood. Some cultures are not as direct as (or more direct than) your own. Learning how to adapt your body language, vocabulary, and tone of voice is key to good cross-cultural communication.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Try to find someone who has been to that city or organization before so that you can ask them questions. Don't just automatically accept their opinion on things, but listening can be useful; and people are often willing to share their stories. Don't forget to think of sustainability: not just what you are doing, but what the next intern will do, and the next, and the next, and what your work means for the bigger picture. You may not feel like you are making a big impact, but have you contributed to efficiency? Or taught someone something new? My office in Huacho was consuming nearly 3,000 sheets of paper per month (for 15 people). I suggested making a pile of paper that had only been used on one side so that we could print on the other side. By the next week, everyone was practicing this, and in one month we cut our consumption by more than half. A little suggestion can go a long way!
What did you miss most about home?
People saying what they meant. In Peru so many conversations would end with “I'll call you” or “I'll meet you here at this time”, and it often would not come true. I learned that “I'll call you” was just a nice way to hang up the phone, and meetings didn't always happen. I felt like respect of other people's time was not an important aspect of the culture.
Do you have anything else to add?
Remember to keep an open mind. Don't forget to try new things! Music, dancing, food, traveling, festivals, there are so many things to explore!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I am currently studying abroad (again), this time in an Erasmus Mundus master's program. I am completing my MSc in Hydro-Informatics and Water Management, and it is a joint master's program between five universities (University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis, Technical University of Catalonia, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus, and Newcastle University). Each semester, I will study in a different university. When I graduate in two years' time I think I will have many different options to choose from: either to complete a PhD (in Canada, Europe, or elsewhere), or work. I am interested in working with natural hazards adaptation and mitigation (specifically flooding), urban water management, and other environmental topics.
Sheila has a well-defined set of professional goals and she has taken the initiative to become involved in a master’s program with a significant cross-cultural component. Traveling to five schools over such a short period of time will allow her to do a lot of professional networking that could open up even more international opportunities. So far, her international experiences have primarily taken place in South America and Western Europe. We’d suggest that she consider taking a summer volunteer or internship position in Africa between terms or after graduating with her master’s. Because of her practical professional skills, she would surely be able to find a position with an NGO in a developing nation, which would further expand her international experience and challenge her cross-cultural communication skills. When spending time abroad, remember to take note of the professional norms in your host culture and think about how they compare and contrast with those in your home country.
- The North American Identity is a section containing five important articles geared towards helping North Americans think about their professional culture in an international context.
- Career-boosting Strategies While Studying Abroad discusses how to maximize the professional impact of your study abroad experience.
- All NGOs is a searchable resource list of NGOs around the world. This list can be filtered by region and country of headquarters. In it, you can find almost 500 US-based NGOs, many of which send Americans overseas for field work.