This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to intern in Tokyo, Japan, for two months in a visa consulting firm. Even though I was a little hesitant to go on such an intimidating journey, my short internship was filled with a lot of personal and professional growth. Through all my high and low points, here are some of the main reasons why I would not trade my unique internship abroad for anything. And why you should consider taking the journey too.
1. You learn empathy
They say the highest form of critical thinking is empathy, and I definitely learned to feel more empathetic for others after completing my internship. When you intern abroad, you most likely will not be speaking your first language and will struggle to communicate with your coworkers. Outside of the office, you will probably continue to struggle just to complete daily tasks due to a lack of understanding the community around you. At first I had a hard time even understanding simple things that a shopkeeper would ask me at the checkout, and I would always feel nervous when I needed to explain anything. At home in America, I have always been easily understood and could understand almost everyone in my community due to the fact that I grew up in an English-speaking home. For many immigrants, living in a country where you cannot understand the people—and they don’t understand you—is tiring and frustrating. Although I was only abroad for two months, my experience has given me a new sense of empathy whenever I come into contact with people who struggle with English and often get talked down to and harassed by other Americans.
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2. You gain independence
During my time abroad I got to experience the feeling of living alone like a “real adult” without actually being thrown out into full adulthood just yet. Unless your internship has a complete support program that helps you arrange your housing, airfare, etc., you may find that you have to learn how to take care of all those things yourself. I lived in my own apartment and took care of all my own meals—although I admit I ended up eating out most of the time due to the convenience and the lack of cooking supplies in my tiny apartment! Commuting alone by train was a great experience too, as I had to learn what to do if I got lost and manage what time to leave to catch the appropriate trains. I definitely got used to working the typical nine-to-five office job. Honestly, I was so tired by the time I got home, I often did not eat much dinner and just went straight to bed only to wake up early the next day. I really appreciated this first look into my potential work life and the new independence I gained due to my internship abroad.
3. You become more adventurous
I don’t consider myself that adventurous and I rarely go out and explore different places or hobbies in my home state of California. However, interning abroad gave me the excuse to go to several different places by myself on weekends and after work. This isn’t to say you can’t be adventurous on your home campus or during a domestic internship, but interning overseas gives the extra vacation adventure feel even while working! Luckily for me, Japan is a very safe and convenient place to travel; unlike the United States, almost the whole country is connected by railway. Even though I did not travel to too many places outside of Tokyo, I felt safe taking the train spontaneously anywhere, and making spontaneous plans was exciting.
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4. You improve your communication skills
Communication is not just about knowing the language but also knowing the culture behind it. Interning abroad gives you the opportunity to develop vital communication skills by working through cross-cultural barriers. The more globalized the world becomes due to technology, the more likely you will work in a job or live in a community that includes people of all backgrounds. In order to become a more productive society, people will need improved communication skills to accomplish tasks together. For example, in Japan people tend to not give clearly “yes” or “no” answers to certain questions in order to avoid unnecessary conflict and to maintain group harmony. In addition, it’s customary for companies to not directly correct an employee if they make a mistake; instead, they will instead be subtle and assign the person less difficult or different tasks. Luckily I did not run into these problems, but knowing these things helped me ask specific questions to learn how to improve in my work and make the most of my time there.
5. You practice money management
Budgeting for life abroad is a unique challenge—certainly different from your day-to-day budgeting at home! First, in order to even use your debit or credit cards abroad, most companies advise contacting them and telling them when you will be abroad as a security measure to prevent identity theft. Second, you need to figure out how to get foreign currency. Where can you get the best exchange rate: your personal bank or the airport you will be landing in? What about ATMs abroad? For me, because Japan is still very much a cash-carrying society, I wanted to start with at least $500 worth of Japanese yen just in case of emergencies.
Money exchange rates were unfortunately not very good on the American side when I went abroad, but that is just another thing I had to consider in my budget. In addition, companies will always charge you a bit more (including ATM and American credit card fees) to make money off your foreign transactions, so you be aware before you make any purchases. Another aspect of budgeting abroad includes researching the cost of living in your destination. After looking online and discussing with my friends who live in Japan, I was able to set up a rough budget that I tried to commit to for my daily transportation, food, and weekend plans. Interning abroad taught me how to be more aware of my finances and I felt the satisfaction of sticking to my financial goals.
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Having the opportunity to study abroad can be life changing for most students. Having the opportunity to internship abroad? That’s just an unmatched experience. Take advantage of the time you have in college to do really fun, impressive, adventurous things. It’s these experiences that you’ll carry with you and launch you to a future career you’ll thrive in.
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