30 Jan 2013

Interning Abroad

5 months into my year abroad and I've decided it's time for a little assessment.

Undertaking a year abroad is a fundamental part of any language degree; a time to improve on and hopefully perfect your superficial "A-level baptised" language skills and return to university still dreaming about your target language.  This is easier said than done.  Learning a language in the host country has many benefits, but when you find yourself in such a multicultural city like Paris, the opportunities to speak the language can be readily distinguished.  Most people in Paris speak English because it's considered a basic necessity, like the ability to read.  Even for the most mundane jobs, English language skills are expected at a minimum level.  In rural France however, the likelihood that the farmer at your local market has a strong grasp of anglais is rather slim.  You're therefore forced to communicate in French, or at least attempt to.  Hence, learning the language becomes a necessity, rather than a convenience.  A concept many English-speaking Westerners struggle with.

For my year abroad I could have chosen to study at a French university (or university in a French-speaking country), work as an English language assistant teacher for the British Council, or find an internship.  I knew I didn't want to teach because I'd undergone a pretty harrowing Au-pair experience in Spain after my first year, so my initial inclination was to go down the university route because it seemed the least risqué option.  It would be easy to make friends, I thought, because of the sheer number of Erasmus students, and the hours wouldn't be very intensive.  Grenoble seemed appealing, what with it's winter skiing and sandy beaches in the summer.  However, after talking face-to-face with a variety of students who'd just completed YAs, I suddenly became quite intrigued by an internship abroad.  One girl had done an internship at L'Oreal and another at Air France.  Many had done internships in translation and they all spoke to me about the benefits of working abroad.  Before long, the idea of going to university had shot out the window and I was well on my way to looking for an internship.  The main questions however were 1) What should I do an internship in? and 2) How was I going to secure it?

Thankfully, Exeter had a list of employers who had taken on their students in the past and we were allowed to send up to five Exeter-linked applications.  Surprise surprise, I waited until the last minute to complete them.  I remember that evening distinctly.  The deadline was 11pm on a Wednesday night in November and I was sitting in bed with my laptop on my knees, tapping furiously on the keyboard.  For each individual application, we needed a French version and I'd been struggling to translate it.  I was on the phone frantically with one of my best friend's who is half French; my eyes were sore, my head ached, and I was losing hope.  After a huge kerfuffle, emails with my applications were sent out at 1am and I could finally breathe.  Little did I know that this wasn't even half of it.  Weeks and months went by and I heard nothing.  Hours were spent at my computer screen, waiting for an email to come through with at least something.  The May deadline for signing off on my internship was creeping up on me but I was still holding out a vague resemblance to hope.  I desperately tried to contact anyone I knew who might have a contact somewhere in France.  I emailed a lady in Brussels who worked for the EU and subsequently introduced me to a man who worked at La Croix Rouge (The Red Cross) in Lyon.  That fell through, but I was still hopeful as he had contacts at France24 and another major French radio station.  However, I was only getting replies from him once a week and time was running out.  I soon had to let go of the rope I'd been getting tangled in for so long, but I wasn't ready to pack it in.

Then came a major break-through.  After speaking to the work-abroad coordinator at Exeter, I decided to spruce up my CV and covering letter and he resent my application to the International Herald Tribune in Paris.  To cut a long story short, I received an email that very night saying I'd got the job.  No interview, no phone conversation.  It was May 4th; the deadline for confirming an internship with Exeter, and I'd done it, just in the nick of time.  I could say goodbye once and for all to the prospect of going to university in France.  In retrospect, going to university wasn't such a heinous idea, it was more the fact that it would have been a humiliating defeat after all those months of agonizing anticipation and hard work.

Yet despite the gruelling application process, the restless nights and the unanswered emails, it all worked out.  The key is to come to terms with the fact that the majority of the covering letters and CVs you write will be either unanswered, thrown in the trash, or have coffee spilt on them.  But when you finally get accepted, the relief and excitement you get is second to none. 

An internship is definitely the toughest route to go down, because while you do receive a certain amount of help from your university, there's no guarantee that you'll get accepted.  Many students working abroad found internships through their own contacts or simply viewing postings online, and my biggest regret was sending off my applications through uni and viewing it as a 'waiting game'.  However good you think your chance might be, there's no use finding yourself in April with no internship secured, having not communicated with anyone since November.  The longer you leave it, the more pressure you're placing yourself under.  Of course there's a lot of risk involved and you end up putting a lot of time and effort into a process where there are no guarantees, but if you're determined and ruthless, that's only going to get you closer and closer to your goals.

I decided to come up with a list of reasons why working abroad is good:

1) You get to work with interesting, clever people, whose conversations don't revolve around how many jagerbombs they downed the night before. 
2) You find out what it's like to work overseas - certain work benefits, company atmosphere, dress code, office parties...
3) You're probably working 7/8 hours a day in your target language which will improve your language skills immensely.
4) You actually get paid for your work (particularly in France where they have great benefits for interns, often including 50% off transport, at least 436 euros a month, and restaurant tickets).
5) You're preparing yourself for the future! No more lie-ins till midday - you're in the real world now and you appreciate the value of weekends to go and explore your new city!

6) Hello CV.  You've only gone and made yourself more employable! Not only have you ticked the big 'internship/work experience' box, but you've done it ABROAD.  Future employers will love your new-found global perspective.
7) New skills.  Like photocopying, making spreadsheets, making coffee...I jest, slightly.  It's all part of the experience!
8) That 'dream job' you always wanted may seem a little far out of reach, but having work experience abroad could come in handy one day, especially if an opportunity arises where you'd need to manage someone overseas.
9) You could go back and work there one day, or even after you graduate!  You're not limited to living in the same shell morning and night.
10) You've just gone and shown you've got courage, determination and that you mean business!

Now what's stopping you?

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