Internships, Assistancships, Study Abroad and More:

Your Guide to Gaining the International Experience Employers Expect


What you can do during your college years to come out with key experiences that will help you find your niche and land your first job.

“I really can’t take on an internship, I need to make good money this summer to pay for school.”

“I’d love to get some work experience, but right now I just need to keep my nose to the grind and get good grades.”

Both are noble ideas: keep your debt low so that life after college isn’t weighed down by heavy school loans; get good grades so you get the most out of your program.

But what if skipping the internships, study abroad opportunities, and work experiences means taking a major hit to your post-college earning potential?

A survey published in The Chronicle of Higher Educationand American Public Media’s Marketplace found that “Employers place more weight on experience, particularly internships and employment during school vs. academic credentials including GPA and college major when evaluating a recent graduate for employment.”

Did you catch that?

Your experience can be more important than grades, even for fresh graduates.

“Employers have the expectation that you’re going to have work experience, even if it’s unpaid work experience,” affirms Dr. Alisa Eland, the Associate Director for Counseling and Advising in the International Student Services office at the University of Minnesota.

Experience Can Help You Find Your Niche

Dr. Eland was an International Relations major who expected to enter the world of politics or law, but ended up in a uniquely fulfilling niche: counseling international students here in the U.S.

During an exciting and challenging student exchange year in Berlin Dr. Eland experienced a shift in her vision for her future.

“I just thought to myself, wow, I really want to keep doing this kind of work!” But how could this experience translate into a viable career?

“I wrote to the program head [at the University of Minnesota] and…I got hired to work as a student coordinator of that exchange program,” she says.

This program ran from the University of Minnesota’s International Student Services Office. Her time there offered a handful of learning opportunities and the offer of a graduate assistantship.

These experiences helped Dr. Eland realize that her gifts and natural inclinations fit well with helping international students in one-on-one settings, which ultimately led to her current role as a counselor and advisor for international students.

Experience Shows Employers You Can Put Theory Into Practice

But maybe you’ve already found your niche: You’ve known since fifth grade that you want to work with USAID developing aid programs for the underserved in Southeast Asia.

Great. Study hard. Take loads of development classes and learn all you can about the political climate of Southeast Asia.

But guess what? There is no substitute for experience.

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In fact, employers rank internships and work experiences at the very top of their list when evaluating recent grads. In the same survey mentioned above, grades came in second to last in importance on a list of eight factors in the eyes of managers and HR departments.

“A lot of times students…think, ‘oh, I don’t have time for that’, but actually it’s a really critical part of your education,” says Dr. Eland.

Why? Employers want to see that you have the skills necessary to turn your theoretical knowledge into real-time, practical experience, she explains.

Experience doesn’t just come in the form of work and internships, either.

“Extracurricular activities, like professional clubs, athletics, and service, are valued more than GPA, relevance of coursework to position, and college reputation,” writers of the CHE/Marketplace survey explain. They do note one exception: Executives who get involved in the higher process “emphatically place more weight [than HR and hiring managers] on coursework relevance and GPA.” Even still, executives rank internships and work experience as more important than grades.

How To Get Relevant, Meaningful Experience

Hopefully we’ve convinced you that getting some real-world experience is a non-negotiable for students of international relations. So what are your options?

  1. Get Some Experience Right on Your Own Campus

    The importance of cross-cultural friendships cannot be overstated.

    “[In] all of the relationships I had, especially with my roommates and a couple of close friends, [I] just learned so much about myself and about my assumptions,” says Dr. Eland, when reflecting back on her friendships while in Berlin.

    She goes on to share that while in Berlin she found herself becoming increasingly frustrated with one of her friends. Being a good Minnesotan, she didn’t address the issue directly. When the issue finally came to a head, however, Dr. Eland found herself challenged to adjust her own communication style as well as forced to recognize that her inaccurate assumptions had created unnecessary conflict…

    Can you imagine how often inaccurate assumptions impact the effectiveness of organizations ranging from the tiny, 10-staff member NGO in Indonesia to conversations happening at the UN?

    These friendships widen your understanding of how the world works and prepare you to relate globally. So how can you build these kinds of friendships?

    • Find a Study Partner. Choose international students as partners for group work or invite them to study together. This can be less intimidating than inviting them out to coffee, which gets awkward if you run out of conversation.
    • Become and International Event Groupie. Many campuses have regular events put on by international student groups. You may be only non-Asian at the Thai Student Association’s Festival of Lights event, but you’ll get to eat amazing food, pick up some cultural tidbits, and you might just make a friend.
    • Create Interview Opportunities.Interview international students for research projects or other assignments. If you really seem to connect with someone, or if something another student said interests you, exchange contact information and look for another opportunity to connect.
    • Become a Buddy.Find out whether or not your school has an international buddy program where you can pair up with an international student or visiting scholar as a cultural exchange.
    • Be the Only American in a Club.Look for related clubs on campus. You don’t necessarily need to be an international to join a related student activities group…one Chinese student wanted to better understand the similarities and differences between her home culture and that of Vietnam, so she joined the University of Minnesota’s Vietnamese Student group as a learning experience. Not surprisingly, after a year of planning events together she had developed some pretty special friendships within the group.

    The idea of being the one to reach out can feel intimidating for some people, so if you’re not an extrovert you may want to dip your toes in by volunteering to help one of the international groups with their events.

    “I’m an introvert…it’s easier for me if I have a role,” says Dr. Eland. “If I offer to volunteer then that gives me something to do and it’s much easier for me to have conversations.”

  1. Secure a Significant Overseas Living Experience

    So we could have just started this one by saying “study abroad”, but that’s actually just one way to find significant overseas experience.

    First, let’s start by clarifying the word “significant”. While backpacking through Europe or Asia can be an incredibly enriching and exciting overseas experience, you probably won’t gain quite the depth of cultural and relational knowledge that future employers are looking for.

    Your primary goal should be to find opportunities that allow you to go deep in relationships or gain some kind of international business or development experience. Here are a few suggestions:

    • Sign Up to Help.Look for internships or summer volunteer opportunities with NGO’s working overseas
    • Explore Unexpected Business Roles.Find out if there are any internship opportunities with companies working in other countries…the biggies like Proctor & Gamble and Siemens all have divisions across the world, but even lesser known companies often have factories or branches that might be able to take you on. For example, one student with no business or sales experience found a position working as a cultural liaison for a U.S. –based food company that does business with certain regions of Asia.
    • Go Grassroots.Find out if any of your international friends on campus have a connection who would like an intern back in their home country…you may be stocking produce or teaching English to factory workers, but the experience will push your ability to relate cross-culturally an pay out in long-term skills dividends. (A side note on visas: It’s highly likely you’ll have to do this unpaid due to visa restrictions in many countries, but the experience will be worth it’s weight in gold.)
    • Get the Education Experience.And, of course, you can explore study abroad options. Most programs create space for these experiences within their overall plan, but if yours doesn’t there may still be options. Explore summer and winter break study programs, or speak with your advisor about whether or not any adjustments could be made to your schedule to allow for a semester abroad.

    While planning your overseas experience, consider how you might incorporate more than one region of the world into your travels.

    Dr. Eland says that while living in Berlin was “one of the best things I’ve done…to put education and career together,” she does have one regret: “if I had it to do over, if I could go back, I would have also studied abroad in a non European country.”

    While she wouldn’t exchange her time in Berlin for anything, she does think that exploring a non-Western country would have broadened her experience and prepared her even more for her current role.

  1. Find the Internationals Living in Your Community

    You may be surprised to discover the number of international ethnic communities within a few miles of your school. Some are more visible than others, but with a little searching you’ll likely find a place to get involved.

    • Be a Teacher.Communities with immigrant populations often have non-profit literacy services that you can volunteer with. Some University of Minnesota students help Somali immigrants practice their conversational English through local non-profits. Even smaller communities often have non-profits serving local immigrant populations.
    • Find a Religious Community.Religious communities are often very welcoming of curious outsiders. Joining a community in their worship and related events—whether at a church, temple or mosque—and learning how they integrate their faith with their daily lives can truly deepen your understanding of how each group views the world and how that impacts international relationships.
    • Volunteer to Research.Often communities with medium to large immigrant populations are served by government agencies that actively research the needs, challenges, and opportunities within those communities. As a student you may not be able secure a paid position but the time spent as a volunteer research associate can provide foundational experience that opens doors for your next role in life.

Keeping the Value of Your Experience in Mind

If you’re tempted to take that lucrative UPS job moving boxes at 4am next summer consider asking yourself:

  1. How will doing this instead of developing international experience influence my future job prospects?
  2. If I’m really stuck financially, is there a way to do this andget some international experience?

One final word of advice: See the internationals you connect with during your experience not as projects, but as potential close friends.

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Dr. Eland says that even today, 30 years later, she maintains those early friendships made in Berlin. Thinking back on the conflict she experienced with a friend there and how it ultimately got resolved she reflects: “…talking through [the conflict] with him…really made a difference in my communication style…that really has had a lasting effect both in my personal life and in my work life.”

So be wise and avoid excessive debt or overscheduling to the point that your grades bottom out, but remember: when it comes to building your international relations resume there is very little substitute for personal experience.