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You're not Angelina Jolie -- but you can do an international internship

Jenna Johnson

Today's guest bloggers are Lindsay Briggs, who is working on her dissertation research in Nigeria, and Emil Nagengast, a professor of politics at Juniata College in Pennsylvania.

Internships are the new jobs. Many companies, corporations and nonprofits are seeing the profit in having eager workers who are willing to work for free, for less than someone else or for free with benefits. And an international internship can really help boost your resume.

But there are things students need to know before booking plane tickets. Here's a handy list based on our experiences that will help students seeking to gain work experience in other parts of the developing world:

LindsayBriggs.jpgNeed a response quickly?
Tell us how long you think you should have to wait for a response about an internship in a developing country. Now, add another few weeks to get a realistic time frame. The organizations you want to work with do not care much about your pressing need to do anything, and they will move at their own pace no matter how much it irritates you or complicates your life.

Emil_Nagengast Classroom.jpgGetting paid for this work?
If you want to get paid, then come back in 10 years when you have more experience and perhaps a graduate degree under your belt. Paid internships in the developing world are few and far between. The best you can usually hope for is some kind of living assistance (for example, maybe the organization will find you a place to stay for little or no cost), but typically you're on your own financially. Working abroad for six months or a year will likely be more valuable in the long run. Most loans will be deferred for at least six months, and student loan lenders will often extend the grace period for other reasons, such as lack of income.

You are not Angelina Jolie
You will probably be given "menial" tasks that might make you second-guess your decision to take a position. Just continue to believe that your decision was worth it. You will learn more about how organizations really work on a day-to-day basis and will get more ground-level experience by doing all the "little things" it takes to make any organization run.

Expect to help with computers; expect to build Web pages. Any student's facility with computers and the Internet are far beyond what most of the people in your organization will have, so don't say, "I am not an IT person." You may not be an IT person, but you are it when it comes to IT, so a refusal to help tells colleagues you are not really concerned about helping them, souring your relations immediately.

Your aim should not be to wipe out malaria. Instead, seek to learn as much as possible about "development work." You will need to wait until much later in your career to save the world. Right now, be content to learn the basics. How do they use the donor money? How do they identify problems? Do they make a difference with their work?

Be aggressive
Nobody's calling to offer you an exciting opportunity abroad. Don't wait for a professor or friend to arrange things for you. You'll be waiting a long time. If you're timid about writing and calling people abroad, and you don't have the energy to struggle through application materials, you should get a job at the local mall. As a veteran Google user, no student can seriously say that he or she cannot find a long list of organizations to contact. Once you have the list and have done some research about the organizations, meet with your professors.

No pay, but big bragging rights
Working abroad will give you many exciting stories, make you a stronger person in general and impress everyone. When you are trying to figure out how to finance your experience, it often seems attractive to take a year or two off and find any job that you will give you a paycheck. Major mistake. No future employer or graduate program will care if you were an assistant manager at a clothing store, but they will be intrigued by your work at an NGO in Africa.

Be inspired
Come with your own ideas, and be prepared to work independently. If you can come in with some ideas for projects that might benefit the organization and demonstrate a willingness and ability to work semi-independently on the projects, an organization will be much more likely to want you around. Some organizations will have enough of their own work for you to take on, but having some ideas of your own can come in handy should the opportunity arise.

Go a few steps beyond
Take advantage of experiences and opportunities outside any position you get. Get involved with the community, and venture out into your new surroundings. Pursue interesting contacts constantly. Students often tell us that they overcome the boredom of an internship by getting involved with other groups, such as adult literacy courses or U.S. Embassy educational programs.

Don't be the "Ugly American"
The best advice that we have heard for anyone going abroad is: "If you want things to be like they are back home, then stay at home." Often one of the more challenging aspects of working internationally is cross-cultural communication. You do not want to be known as the person who believes everyone else just cannot see the errors of their ways. Flexibility also is an important trait to develop when working internationally.

If you are a woman, especially a young American, don't behave in a way that unintentionally tends to attract harassment -- like always being happy to help, wanting to be friends with everyone, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings. We also live in a culture in which it is assumed that women and men are equal, or at least have equal gender roles, but this may not be true where you are headed. Becoming familiar with local culture can help you determine how to react. By gaining a good understanding of the local culture, you will show others that you know the difference between cultural tolerance of sometimes overbearing flirtations and over-the-line disgusting behavior that is not acceptable.

Laugh at yourself
Even when you don't mean to, you will likely be a spectacle that draws much attention. If you are a good sport people will be more likely to befriend you and those friends will often help you make connections you could not make on your own. If you get upset over people's attention they will give you the "white glove treatment" and it is unlikely you will make many close friends. A good sense of humor always wins friends, especially in an environment where you are going to be someone that people are curious about but likely too scared and unsure of whether it is appropriate to approach you.

Don't complain
No one likes a whiner. Try to turn negative experiences into positive opportunities for growth and development. Even if you had a wretched overall experience (which is unlikely), look for bright spots or silver linings. If you tell people that you hated your internship and that you will never go back to that country again, you are admitting that you are close-minded and probably not a pleasant person to be around. But you can impress people by describing the frustration and stress and then adding, "It was an amazing experience."

About today's guest bloggers

Lindsay Briggs is working on her dissertation research in Benin City, Nigeria. She graduated from Juniata College in Huntindgon, Pa., with a bachelor's degree in international affairs and Asian studies. She received her master of public health from the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and is in the final year of her Ph.D. program at Indiana University. Her personal blog is at

Emil Nagengast is professor of politics at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He has conducted field research in Ethiopia at the headquarters of the African Union and in Gambia at the headquarters of the African Commission for Peoples and Human Rights. Each year, he takes Juniata students on a summer program in West Africa.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | October 11, 2010; 1:39 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Interns  | Tags:  Internships, Juniata College  
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