A Cross-Cultural Co-Op In West Africa
Where did you intern abroad?
I interned in Ghana, West Africa from January to May. I did a placement with a small organization focused on microfinance. In my university career thus far I've focused on art, business, economics and international trade.
What made you want to intern abroad?
I am in a co-op program geared towards helping students decide what they want to do after graduation. I decided coming into this program that I didn't want to have the same kind of placement twice. I wanted to try different positions every term. After working at a private ECM (Enterprise Content Management) company, a public government office and at the University of Waterloo, I really wanted to test my capabilities, both professionally and personally. I wanted to travel and experience what it's like to work in another country on a project that I'm passionate about: economic development.
How did you conduct your search? What made you select your program/company?
I did everything from calling international companies to simply looking at connections on LinkedIn. I sent several emails, made many phone calls, and had several conversations about positions and opportunities abroad. I met so many people in the process who had such great advice. After doing a little bit of research, I decided I wanted to work for a small Ghanaian microfinance company run for the local people, by the local people. Microfinance is within my study scope (economics), and I wanted to work at a small organization because it's the best way to get a lot of responsibility and the most field work. A lot of larger organizations offered administrative desk jobs, but I knew I wanted to be in the field.
What was the biggest surprise about your intern experience abroad?
The biggest surprise about my intern experience was the massive difference in work practices between Canada and Ghana. While Ghana is very professional and is becoming more developed, many cultural factors (like religion and household seniority) play major factors in the workplace. Even though there was a lot I could say or do to improve processes at work, if an elder disagreed with me, there were no questions. If I wanted to help out with carrying things or running an errand, an unwilling male would be encouraged to do it instead.
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 met several other people my age while in Ghana. I ended up making a very close group of friends who had an even bigger network of people. We traveled all over Ghana on weekends and took trips to all the must-see places. We went to local bars and restaurants, enjoyed the beaches, took drum lessons, and supported a lot of local businesses. We visited each other's internships and made very close meaningful ties with many people. I even picked up tutoring during the week and fundraised for a school in the slums of Ghana. The social activities varied the most in that I was so free and encouraged to do whatever I wanted and go wherever I wanted. Being a foreigner and coming into Ghana is scary; but once you're there, you realize that the people of Ghana are happy to host visitors; people who not only go to the touristy places, but the very local, less fancy places. I felt comfortable hopping on a bus, unsure of where I was going or where I was staying. There were always incredibly hospitable people who were willing to point me in the right direction. I became really comfortable doing things on my own and always felt very confident that I would be okay.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your internship?
It is incredibly important to keep a very open mind no matter what. Entering another country means you must adjust to their way or living, not the other way around. Some things may seem rude or unacceptable, but consider the fact that maybe it's normal to your hosts. Some people may seem overly friendly, but that may just be their culture. I had to ensure I was never too quick to judge. I also needed to be willing to pick up on their language; they love it when foreigners know the local tongue! The cultural divide begins to disappear if you simply dive right in. Immerse yourself into their language, cuisine, music, practices, hobbies, clothing, etc.
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
Don't be afraid! Don't feel left out. Don't be a foreigner. Learn the language. Be a local.
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
DO IT! Travel now while you have the energy, the motivation and the time. Whether you go by yourself or with a friend, you're guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. How many people do you know your age that just pick up and go? Don't you envy them? It was an overnight decision for me to go to international for my co-op job. I'd never traveled without my family, but within a few months I was packed and flying off to West Africa by myself -- to be greeted by just one known contact. You will meet people. You will make friends. You will have the time of your life.
What did you miss most about home?
What I missed most about home was the food! Of course I missed my family and friends -- just like anyone else would, but I never thought I would miss food so much! I had food there, but it was just so different. There were not many vegetables, and most food was very starchy. Nobody believes me when I say this, but I went to Ghana, West Africa for five months and gained 20 pounds! The food there is so good. Fruits and veggies are hard to come by and the fried starchy foods are ready to be served on any street corner! Don't get me wrong, the food in Ghana is very delicious and satisfying, but I missed the freshness and variety that I have at home. Plus, the gym was crazy expensive and it was too hot to go running so I literally watched myself grow! After the first month, I had to accept it!
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
As a graduating student, one would think I have all my plans sorted out. But the truth is that I don't. All I know is that there's the perfect job out there for me to fill and there's a world out there that I want to see. There are cultures to emerge myself in, music to hear, dances to dance, food to taste and people to meet! I don't want to be old and wonder what's out there. Whether I do it for leisure or for work, I will be going abroad. Ideally, I'll find a career that I love that will help me do this (getting paid to travel seems too good to be true), but if my career can't take me there, my own two feet will! This may not be the ideal answer, but it's the straight truth!
May-Lynne's plans for her future aren't well-defined as yet, but she has a great perspective, and is aware of how best to professionalize an experience abroad. For those who want to spend time abroad but have not make specific career choices, we highly recommend taking an English teaching term abroad in Asia or South America. These positions allow you to earn money, build language skills, soak up local culture and -- if you have an entrepreneurial spirit -- network and pick up side contracts in your industry of choice. Since she has not yet determined a specific career path, May-Lynne could also consider taking a working vacation to travel and taking on casual jobs to support herself. "Low-skill" jobs in the service industry or being an au pair are great ways to fund a working vacation. As May-Lynne says, getting paid to travel may be too good to be true, but it's certainly possible to earn money abroad.
- Teaching English as a Stepping Stone to Your International Career explains some of the most common personal and professional motivations for teaching English abroad.
- Teach English Abroad Job Boards offers links to recruiting agencies and job boards for positions teaching English abroad.
- How to Find a Working Holiday Job Before Going Abroad is a short article outlining one of the most popular ways to go abroad. Read the entire Working Vacations section to find out how to ramp up the value of your time abroad.