When and where did you intern abroad?
From January to April of 2012, I worked as an engineering co-op student in the airbus division of Eurocopter Deutschland in Germany.
How did you conduct your search? What made you select your program/company?
I had taken one intro to German course at my university the previous year. When I received an email from my university saying that there were opportunities to work abroad in Germany and Austria as a co-op student, I jumped at the chance to put my new language skills to the test. I saw it as a great alternative to studying abroad, which had more prerequisites and would have required me to reschedule some courses.
What was the biggest surprise about your intern experience abroad?
I’d thought that because the company was international and it used English as the standard language for all internal documents, employees would be speaking English on a regular basis. Was I ever surprised! Many workers knew English but no one spoke it unless they had to. I wish I’d practiced my German more than I did before I left, since it was hard finding work that needed to be done in English or could be done with my limited German skills.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting to your international work environment?
Because I wasn’t fluent in the language, I had to get used to not being able to understand those speaking around me. This bothers you more than you might think. For months I’d be in a room of people without being able to say anything or understand what was being said. This made me feel lonely at times, but also really motivated me to continue my studies of the language!
Did you do any extra traveling?
Almost every single weekend I planned a trip to go somewhere. As a co-op student in Europe you don’t get paid much, so I went into a bit of personal debt for these endeavors, but I think it was worth it. I ended up going to Barcelona, Paris, Marseilles, Salzburg and Dublin, as well as just about every bit of Germany from the north in Hamburg to the very south in Munich. Getting around Europe was so easy because they have the best rail system I’ve ever seen by far. Buying tickets is also easy, since you can either do it online or at a machine in the train station, both of which have English command options. It’s also important to listen carefully to the stop names on the trains. I had the misfortune of getting off at the wrong stop once because the main name was the same, but afterwards I learned to always make sure that they announced “Hauptbahnhof” (German for “main station”) before I got off!
Did you participate in any social activities?
The company I worked for employed students from all around Europe, and every week students arranged meetings at the local pub. It was a great time meeting new people of a similar age who you wouldn’t normally see in the workplace. By going to these gatherings I made many friends whom I still stay in contact with. I met one student who seemed just like the German counterpart to me – we got along like two peas in a pod! I even met a student who will be going to my home university in the fall! I’m really looking forward to showing him some of my Canadian culture.
What did you miss most about home?
I definitely missed my family and friends. When you’re having a bad day, you can’t just pick up the phone and get your best friend to come over. I had to get used to orchestrating Skype calls in advance, and I missed the meaningful conversations that I couldn’t have in German. It got easier when I found friends in Germany. It’s always important, no matter where you are, to have a network of friends who have your back.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps by working abroad?
Never assume that you know everything about a culture until you get there and experience it for yourself. And take as many language courses as possible before you go anywhere! Even if your job is in English, co-workers prefer speaking their mother tongue, and they always appreciate the effort you put into speaking it with them. Don’t be afraid to mispronounce words. If you’re too scared to learn from your mistakes, you won’t learn as much as you could have.
Going to any new city can be a terrifying experience. Moving to a new country with a different language was like nothing else I’d experienced before. Getting off that plane was extremely nerve wracking and in the beginning I relied heavily on a German student to help me with the language and talk to my landlord. But even though I needed help, I felt that I grew so much as a person through my experience going abroad. It’s one of those things where you can say, “Hey, I moved to Europe on my own for four months, I think I can do *blank* too”. You learn so much about yourself and what you are capable of doing.
Do you have any final thoughts on your experience?
You’re abroad! GO TRAVEL while it’s still cheap to do so! Find some great friends and plan as many weekend trips as you can to places you want to go to most and plan them early! I loved Germany so much when I was there that I plan on moving there after I graduate. I changed my school schedule for the next two years to include four more language courses. My German was good enough that by the time I got back from Germany, I was able to skip one German level, and I’m hoping that by the time I graduate, I’ll be fluent.
Donna seems to have a particular interest in Germany and the German language. We’d recommend that she continue to build her German fluency and pursue professional opportunities in areas where she can use and further develop her language skills. As an engineering student, Donna is developing a professional skill set that will be highly sought-after. She should consider researching German engineering firms with operations abroad (Germany is a world leader in exporting engineering services and high-end manufactured goods) where she can continue to use her German language skills, as well as her English and cross-cultural skills. We might also suggest that she challenge herself by finding a volunteer position with an NGO in a developing nation to broaden her skill set and potential appeal to German engineering firms.
- Engineering: Sectors and Positions Abroad provides an excellent broad introduction to the types of positions available for engineers abroad.
- The Engineering Resources list might be a good place to start researching international activities and opportunities in the engineering industry.
- Tactics for Regional Job Hunting offers perspectives for those interested in conducting a region-specific job search.
- International Associations With Clubs On Campus is an excellent list of campus clubs, a number of which are geared to engineers such as Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) . Consider joining one of these clubs to expand your international engineering experience.