Preparing for an International Internship – Don’t just fill your luggage, fill your mind

July 11, 2013

SuitcaseIn packing for your international internship, you’ll certainly fill your luggage with a lot of clothes, technology, and other personal items you’ll need during your stay. What you might not think to do is fill your mind with a commodity much more valuable than anything you can possibly squeeze into your luggage – knowledge. See, while most or all of the stuff in your luggage will be of some practical or material use to you, chances are none of it will help you to adjust to your temporary new home as much as an advance and thorough understanding of the culture you will be immersed in. In fact, the more diverse the culture is to your own, the more likely there will be numerous cultural gaps that you will need to fill with knowledge and understanding. Some of the things that can be vastly different from what you are used to might include the pace of the environment, the way people meet and greet, how people interact socially, or their attitudes towards certain things. Having some basic knowledge of the language and culture will prevent some avoidable and unpleasant incidents and enhance your overall experience. As an example, before leaving for Thailand, I learned through my own research that Thai people love children so much that they won’t hesitate to display their affection even for ones they don’t know, by picking them up in their arms and talking to them. Given the culture I reside in, had I not known this, I may have mistaken this affection for a threat of some kind and reacted inappropriately, possibly offending the very well intentioned locals. Instead, I reacted appropriately, and showed appreciation for all the attention my children were given throughout our stay.

In acquiring knowledge about the country you are visiting, it is easy to become misinformed with all the information available on the internet. So, you should be certain to only reference credible, well-informed sources of information. One such source is the Cultural Navigator, an online application that compares your cultural orientation to that of others, or as is the case, of the country you are visiting, and identifies potential gaps. It then assigns to you a series of exercises and activities to complete that are designed to prepare you for successful immersion within the targeted culture. Other ways to learn about the country in which you will be completing your international internship is to visit your local library, and websites like Wikipedia to acquire basic information about the history, geography, and culture of every country. Other sites, like the CIA World Factbook, provide lots of valuable data about a country’s people, economy, communications, and transportation. Finally, consider the communities around you. If you live in or near a large city, odds are that you are not far from a community representing the country you will be visiting. Ethnic communities usually have cultural centres you can visit and events you can attend to meet its people and learn about its culture.

In addition to learning about the culture of the country where you’ll be completing your internship, it is very important to learn at least some basic phrases in the native language. In having the benefit of being able to communicate in the most spoken language in the world, one could probably get by anywhere with English alone, but being able to exchange basic communication in the native language of your internship destination will allow you to immerse more quickly in the local culture. This can only contribute positively to your experience. Also, knowing some of the local language extends a level of courtesy and respect to the native people, that you can be almost certain will earn you the same in return. Now, learning a language can be thought of as a fairly onerous task – becoming fluent takes months if not years of study, and some say it requires immersion in a culture that speaks the language as well. So, of course, you shouldn’t expect to become fluent in the language in the short time you have before your departure, but you should expect to learn a little bit of it so that you can do things like introduce yourself to others, make simple requests, and ask people for assistance. There are a few ways to do this. One is to research podcasts such as those offered by the Radio Lingua network to get short, easily digestible lessons for a variety of languages. Another way is to get a phrasebook, which is a little pocket-sized dictionary that you can carry around with you. While this tool will be very useful to you during your internship experience, you can begin to learn and practice short phrases even before you depart.

So, once you have made the decision to participate in an internship abroad, spend less time filling your luggage and most of your time filling your mind. The knowledge you take with you is so much more valuable, and remember that unlike the contents of your luggage, the information stored in your mind doesn’t get heavier the more you have of it, so keep packing it in.

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