Do It Yourself! A Proactive Intern in Rome
When and where did you intern abroad?
I interned abroad from January to April in Rome, Italy. I worked as an intern in the Student Life Office at The American University of Rome (AUR).
What made you want to intern abroad?
I actually didn't know that I wanted to intern abroad until I started working towards my master's degree! I was completing my degree in Student Personnel Administration at Concordia University Wisconsin with the goal of someday working in International Education. Part of my program required me to complete a number of credits within different areas of higher education. I'd studied abroad as an undergrad and when I wanted to make a career change I looked back as to what impacted me the most in university, and that was studying abroad. I'd spent a semester in London, England and it was life-changing! This time around I chose to intern in the student life office (for credit), which allowed me to work with all the incoming study abroad students on campus.
How did you conduct your search? What made you select your program/company?
Honestly, I went about things kind of randomly. When I started thinking about the possibility of interning abroad I didn't really tell anyone because I wasn't sure that it could be a reality. No one in my program had done anything similar. I really had to focus on what would satisfy my internship requirements but would also fit with my goals. I was sitting on my bed one day in July (I started planning six months ahead of time) and I narrowed down my list of programs to one region (Europe held the most appeal for me), and then narrowed it down to English-speaking universities within that region. From there, I put together a cover letter explaining my situation: that I was basically looking to work abroad in their office for free, my credits were coming from my home university and I just needed help finding housing. I Googled English-speaking universities, spent time looking over their sites, found contacts I thought might be able to help me, and emailed my letter and résumé. I received a lot of negative responses, but then an email came from the Provost at AUR saying he thought they could help me, and he forwarded my contact info to the Director of the Student Life Office. From there, we emailed back and forth and things sounded very positive. I took my findings to our internship director and we all agreed it sounded like a great fit and an awesome experience! So, I didn't really end up choosing the company, they chose me!
Did anyone help you with pre-departure preparation?
Since this was such a unique experience, no one really knew what the protocol was. The hardest thing I had to do was apply for the Italian visa. I'm so glad that I started looking into it months before I had to travel, because it was an extensive process. I had to get a letter with proof of funds, ask the university to write me a letter stating that I was a student, get a letter from my insurance company, and get a letter from AUR stating what I would be doing in Italy. I remember sitting there, wondering if it was really going to happen. Will these people really take time to help me out? And they did! Since I'd already studied abroad once before, I was familiar with the other practicalities of traveling abroad. I definitely didn't pack as much as I had the first time; and I gave myself plenty of time to get everything ready.
What was the intern application process like? What made you successful?
My application process was a bit out of the ordinary. There was no official application, just me taking an idea and running with it! I think that I made it successful by being focused and determined in what I wanted to do. Having the support of both campuses definitely made the process easier.
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 was actually very lucky. Even though I was working with the students that came to AUR, my coworkers let me participate in some of the events as if I was a student. I got to go with a group to Tuscany to participate in pasta-making and wine tasting; I led a group of students on a trip to the Vatican to see the Pope; I went with them on sightseeing walks through Rome. It was very different from my home university's culture, mainly in the terms of location and accessibility. As a master's student at home, I didn't participate in a lot of campus activities. I worked during the day and took classes at night, and my university was very secluded. But being in Rome, the campus and the community are intertwined. Everything felt more accessible. My internship allowed me to participate in social activities and see what it would be like for the students that were at AUR. As part of my internship requirements I also wrote a blog, chronicling my experiences while in Rome.
What made your experience abroad a success?
For me it was going into the internship with an open mind. I went abroad not knowing what to expect. I hadn't met anyone I was going to be working with, I'd never been to Rome, and I hadn't been abroad in five years. By looking at my experiences as adventures instead of challenges, I shaped them positively. I'm a pretty laid back person, so being flexible was also an advantage for me. When I got to Rome, AUR put me in an apartment, so I unpacked and got situated; but a week later they realized they needed my apartment for students! They found me another one, but I had just an hour to pack up my stuff and move a few blocks down the street. This could have been a challenge for some students but I just took it as part of the experience of living abroad! I also give a lot of credit to my coworkers at AUR. They were wonderful, and extremely supportive. They definitely made my experience go from good to great and I'm very thankful for that!
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
Communicating was definitely the trickiest part of being in Italy, because I didn't know Italian. It was easy while I was at AUR, because everyone spoke English, but once I went out into Rome it got really interesting. I had a little phrase book that I'd bought before I left home, and I'd learned some phrases, but I was nowhere near being able to have a conversation. One night I decided to go out to dinner at the traditional Italian restaurant across from my apartment. I lived a bit off the beaten path and was used to the restaurants in the more touristy areas, which tend to have some English on the menu. I was in for a surprise when this one was completely in Italian. I was able to figure out what pizza was and what was on it (or so I thought) and I managed to order a pizza and wine (everyone knows "vino"). My pizza came back with all kinds of random mushrooms and salami and other strange stuff. Thankfully, I'm not a picky eater, but I remember thinking to myself "is this what I ordered?!" I should have known it was something unusual when the little old waiter looked at me strangely when I placed my order! The most important thing that I learned while communicating abroad was to take things with a grain of salt, be flexible, and laugh at your mistakes. It's just as hard for the people you are trying to communicate with as it is for you!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
In my situation it was all about turning a goal into a reality. My number one tip would be not to give up on something you really want to do! I heard a lot of "no" before I finally heard "yes" from AUR. I could have quit earlier, but I knew that interning abroad was something I really wanted to do. Also, start your process early; it takes time to get everything ready to go overseas and you'll definitely be one step ahead if you give yourself time.
Do you have any final observations on your experience?
Since I interned abroad I've been able to achieve my goal of working in the field of international education. I'm currently working as a Study Abroad Advisor and I often tell students my stories from abroad in the hope that it will get them interested in gaining overseas experience.
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
I've used my time abroad to help me build a career in higher education. I was pursuing a master's degree during my internship abroad with the hope of becoming a study abroad advisor when I finished. I finished my internship/time abroad and have since worked my way into the field, first as a study abroad assistant and most recently as a study abroad advisor. I don't have any current career goals except to gain more knowledge and to advance within the field. As for going back abroad, I'm hoping to get a chance to do overseas site visits for my position and hopefully will have time to schedule some vacations as well!
Tanya's career goals are well-defined, with a strong international component. Her proactive attitude will serve her well as she pushes to expand her current role as an advisor and incorporates more international travel. We commend her for pursuing a career that not only allows her to build international skills, but is also geared towards helping others realize their international goals. Tanya could offer to take on additional responsibility at work and become even more involved in the management dimension of the program. Should Tanya wish to further develop her international career, being fluent in a foreign language would serve her well; and although her job is located in the US, she might consider using vacation time to volunteer abroad in a developing nation, simply to maximize her knowledge of international programs.
- Should Tanya decide to take some time to volunteer abroad in a developing nation, the Types of Volunteer-sending Organizations article provides a broad overview of the many options available.
- 24 Ways to Go International offers great advice on how to build international skills on and off-campus. Tanya might use some of the suggestions herself or share them with the students she advises.