I'm a student at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico, majoring in biotechnology. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has made pursuing professional international experiences much more difficult, I decided I wouldn’t let it stop me! Instead of sitting at home in lockdown doing nothing, I wanted to use my summer vacations to build professional experience and connect with people abroad. We couldn’t travel of course, so instead I chose to apply for a virtual international program. After some research, I chose a six-week internship program with a company in Japan, managed via Absolute Internship.
I knew I wanted to work with a Japanese firm because, pre-pandemic, I’d had the objective of traveling to Japan, improving my Japanese and getting to understand their work culture. Because of my prior interest, I already had some knowledge about different parts of the culture, such as music, food and entertainment. Plus, I had just completed a year-long online study abroad course with a school in Osaka via an online program (also during Covid-19), which boosted my commitment to interning with a Japanese company in particular.
I worked with Mani & Co, a sustainable advisory company that works to establish clean energy strategies and promote sustainable economic growth within companies. Like I said, I study biotechnology (with a focus on biomolecular science), which has many applications in different global sectors, such as health, agriculture, food and other industries. My personal passion is for environment, agriculture and sustainability, which is why I wanted to work with a company focusing on sustainable processes.
I watched some videos and documentaries before my application, in particular about the work culture and gender differences in the workplace. This research uncovered a few trends that I thought were alarming initially, but once I started the placement process, I felt a lot better and more motivated.
Once my internship started, I figured out that the best way to manage my work would be to have well-established objectives and then plan how I’d tackle the specifics before even starting the internship. Defining your strengths and weaknesses in advance can help you assess which tasks will take more effort for you, and you can plan accordingly. I found it easiest to plan my work week-by-week, then at the start of each week, conduct a day-by-day breakdown, finally followed by an hourly breakdown for each day. Of course, you have to stay adaptable and prepared for unexpected challenges too, but that’s why it’s important to track and plan your work, and integrate any unexpected changes into your future work plans.
I must say that the main challenge I faced while working remotely was the lack of socialization with interns and colleagues. The time difference made it challenging, and the interest in cross-cultural socializing wasn't always mutual. I learned that the best way to overcome this is by being proactive and making the first move to suggest a social meetup. You could also mention your specific interest in your colleagues’ home culture and let them know how they might help you learn. These steps can help you make a better connection and boost the networking component of your internship.
Language differences were certainly a challenge. It was hard to fully express myself, ask questions in the way I needed to, and answer questions fully. I tried to be fully prepared before every meeting to counteract the language barrier. I recommend asking practical questions about apps, platforms and workflow before starting the internship. In my case, we worked mainly on Zoom and Slack as opposed to e-mail. Slack is useful and popular for managers because it’s easy to track a conversation, give quick feedback and make arrangements or assign tasks.
Completing a virtual internship developed my international work experience, and I really improved my soft skills in particular. I now know how to organize myself and get work done on time or even before a deadline. I improved my confidence, communication skills, productivity and independent initiative during the internship. Finally, I really improved my self-discipline in terms of my Japanese studies and other extra courses I was taking during the internship. Being outside an office and having to manage your own schedule is an important skill set to have these days.
This virtual internship helped me grow in ways that I didn’t imagine an online program could! I felt happy and motivated to give it my all, and I feel better prepared for my professional future. Lastly, this six-week program helped me further define my intended specialization in my field, and gave me the motivation to study or work in Japan someday very soon.
María’s go-getter attitude and commitment to seeking out professional international experiences during the pandemic should serve as an inspiration to every globally minded student. She clearly went above and beyond, boosting her language skills, researching general culture as well as Japanese business culture, and reaching out to foreign colleagues to maximize her cross-cultural learning. We commend her for taking these steps, especially during this challenging time. Her story demonstrates that virtual international experiences have huge value, and can boost your knowledge and skills, as well as expanding your professional networks. We encourage Maria to travel to Japan for her next placement, and experience full cultural immersion. We also recommend that she pursues a study, volunteer or internship experience in a different region of the world, so that she can compare and contrast cultural experiences. Good luck!
- The 10 Global Competencies will help you frame your experiences in terms of key career competencies.
- The Ideal International Profile is a key article for anyone considering working towards an international career.
- Language Learning & Your International Career discusses the significant career value of language skills, and ways to go about building them.