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Exchange Semester Abroad vs Internship Abroad: What Is Best for Your Career?

An Opinion Piece From Someone Who Has Done Both

Montreal, Canada where I did my internship abroad.

An exchange semester abroad or an internship abroad, what is best for my career? I get this question quite frequently from people my age (20-25). I have been very fortunate to be able to experience both before the age of 21. The direction I took when I was 18 regarding my studies was very internationalised, which is why my university gives every student who wants a career in that same direction the opportunity to have as many experiences as possible abroad. The thing is, though, that after about six months a lot of my friends realised that this lifestyle of living abroad wasn't for them. This is why I think it's very important to be able to experience something like this before being thrown in the pond without testing the waters first. 

"Growing Up"

Before I did my exchange semester, I heard a lot of people talking about how much they grew up during that one semester and how it completely changed their lives. Being forced into independence is a really important thing for a lot of young adults. But the thing is that, during an exchange semester, you aren't ever "alone" like you would be as a full-grown adult. You're constantly surrounded by people that are older than you and that are (not noticeable by you, of course) still watching your every move, making sure that you stay on the right path. Schools and organisations are entitled, if not obliged, to take care of you and they become your (more independent) parents in a way. The "growing up" that people are talking about when they come back from an exchange semester should actually be understood as "I got more freedom than at my parents' house so now I feel more independent."

On the other hand, none of my friends had ever done an internship abroad. It's something that is mostly done by students who have recently graduated rather than students who are still attending university. I can safely say that the experience I got from doing an internship abroad was very different from doing an exchange semester abroad. I understood very quickly that once you're pulled out of an environment where it's very easy to make friends, like at a school or a soccer team or whatever, it gets A LOT harder to make good friends that you can fully trust. I reflected on this pretty early on and I realised then that the difference between the amount of friends of both of my parents combined and my amount of friends at university was immense and I had never thought about that before. A second big change for me was that, once you are around adults, you are expected to be a fully skilled adult and you can't ask "stupid" questions like "How do I wash this shirt?" At a university abroad, you'd be able to ask your fellow struggling-with-adulthood-friends these types of questions, but in a professional environment there is no place for that. 

In conclusion, I would say that for an internship abroad, the sentence "I have grown up" is more appropriate to use than for an exchange semester abroad.

Making Connections

Chicago, United States where I did my exchange semester abroad.

Depending on your job, you sometimes (or quite often in my case) get the opportunity to attend events and receptions, etc. This is an excellent way to meet people and to hear their stories. However, all of these meetings are small-talk and stay very formal and professional. It's nearly impossible to have a connection with someone if all of the conversations stay bland and emotionless. People talk to each other to benefit from each other. In my case, it was a good way to look for job opportunities after I would graduate, but that was all I could ever get out of these conversations with people.

During an exchange semester, you make a lot of good friends from all over the world and often these people will remain some of your best friends for a very long time in the future. You learn about their culture, their languages, their foods, their ways of living,.. in a very fun way. You travel with them to all kinds of places and you truly have the best time of your life.

In conclusion, it is very clear that your connections all over the world are more likely to stay the way they are thanks to true friendships from an exchange semester abroad rather than from business meetings, etc. Of course, I also made international friends outside of work during my time in Montreal when I was doing my internship, but even those faded a little because I didn't have all of the time in the world to spend time with them like you have in college.

Languages

Is it easier to learn a language abroad? Of course it is. But you have to put effort in it to make it work. The good thing about working abroad is that you are often forced to learn the local language when writing emails or calling people on the phone or even conversating at work itself. However, it is still up to you and your learning abilities how far you will get and how fluent you will become in that particular language.

During an exchange semester, I have noticed that it is often a little bit harder to learn the local language because you tend to automatically spend more time with exchange students - speaking English - rather than hanging out with the locals. But again, that is your own decision to make after all. Some people decide that they only want to hang out with the locals for this specific reason during their study abroad while others prefer just speaking English. 

Experiences

To end this opinion piece, I would like to come to a conclusion by addressing the most important part of both of these concepts: the experience. At the end of the day, that is what an HR manager will look at first before potentially hiring you. First of all, I would like to say that either one of these will get you a very long way. Any type of experience abroad (this could also be volunteering work, etc.) is a good experience for on your CV. However, an internship will usually get you a little bit more recognition than just a study abroad. When a company is looking to hire you, they prefer expertise in one particular field over cultural experiences. Expertise in a field is something that you can only get by doing a job over and over again. Schools are there to teach you the theory, not the job itself. When you have that expertise AND cultural experiences as a plus, that will definitely help you stand out more. 

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