Traveling abroad while I was in college was never on my radar. Although I had the desire to travel, it was an experience I assumed I wouldn’t have until I was out of school, making money, and had a travel buddy. Plus, the summer after my sophomore year was the best yet. I had an internship with LSA, a lease that lasted through the summer, and plenty of friends to keep me company. I planned for the summer of 2015 to look the same as the one that just concluded—relaxed and familiar. I couldn’t have been more off.
As the fall approached, my boss and mentor, Tina, asked what my plans for next summer were. I meekly replied that I’d love to work for her again. Her response? “No.” I was taken aback, but she explained that while she’d love to have me back, I needed an international experience. Tina worked in international alumni engagement at LSA; she knew the impact that experiences abroad could have on students. With my trust in her and an unexpected case of the travel bug, the summer of 2015 was starting to look less relaxed and familiar, and more adventurous and unknown.
My international experience through LSA morphed into not one, but two internships that summer—one paid (score!) and one unpaid (but a priceless experience). These internships took me to Cardiff, Wales and Tirana, Albania, two countries many people can’t find on a map. My internship in Cardiff involved surveying the corporate culture of Admiral Insurance, an FTSE 100 company, and my efforts in Albania, via their National Coastal Agency, focused on increasing tourism to the country’s coastlines. (And no, I don’t speak Albanian.) Both countries, and the experiences I had there, were completely different from one another, but collectively gave me confidence, stories, and lessons that I will cherish forever. I brought back a few pieces of advice to share:
1. It’s the little things that create community
In Wales, every time someone from my team got a tea (or the occasional coffee) from the kitchen, they would take drink orders from the rest of the team (they even had a tray to carry back 10+ cups of tea). The reciprocal gesture was small, but incredibly thoughtful. Similarly, my hospitable Albanian colleagues would invite me on cappuccino breaks (“breaks” meaning sitting outside chatting for over an hour), during which we would learn about each other’s lives, goals, and cultures. In other words, never say no to coffee and bonding.
2. Just eat it
My time abroad confirmed my suspicion that food brings people together. Nothing was off limits that trip. Snake, black pudding, fish eggs (not caviar), raw garlic (supposedly good for you, and keeps the boys away), and Irn-Bru—you name it, I ate it. By embracing new things—whether that’s food, language, worldview, or culture—I created strong connections with people. You’ll also sound really cool when you go back home and say, “Yeah, no big deal, I ate snake.”
3. Work to live, don’t live to work
It is a beautiful thing when a job makes you happy, and you’re working with purpose. An important lesson I took away from my internships, however, is that work isn’t everything. Europeans get at least four weeks of paid vacation time, resulting in a better work-life balance. In fact, research shows that employees tend to be more productive the less time they have to work. After seeing how beneficial this system was in action, it is a practice I hope more companies in the United States choose to adopt.
4. Appreciate the moment you’re in, and use your time wisely
My summer went by too quickly. There were so many more places I wanted to see, people I wanted to spend time with, goals I wanted to achieve at work, and experiences I wanted to have. I was working full time in both countries, and I would get off work some days and just want to go back to my apartment and chill out. Being an introvert and a little lazy, it’s easy for me to retreat back into my room and binge-watch Netflix, but I always try to remind myself how temporary experiences can be. So, say “yes” to drinks with co-workers, wake up early and run (or walk) around your neighborhood, cook that complicated dish over ordering take-out, and live each day like you’re flying out tomorrow. (I know . . . cliché, but true.)
5. Don’t be afraid of failure
I’m jealous of people who have mastered the art of failure. It’s so easy to not pursue endeavors because you think you’re bound to fail or because you need to execute whatever you’re doing with perfection. I can’t even count how many times I decided not to pursue something because I didn’t think it would come naturally to me. (Ahem, speaking Spanish and playing the guitar.) Being in a new place, in a temporary position, helped me move past this fear. I only had a short amount of time to explore, make an impact in my internships, and form connections. I had to get over the “What if I don’t do this right,” “What if I sound stupid trying to learn the language,” or “What if I get lost” voices in my head.
This fall, I’m off on my latest adventure into the unknown. I’ll leave the familiarity of LSA, which I’ve known and loved as a student and employee for nearly six years, to pursue a one-year M.B.A. at Cardiff University in Wales and live with my fiancé (whom I met abroad). The amount of gratitude I have for my international experience is immeasurable. To students reading this, studying or interning abroad won’t just be a tick off your bucket list—it will shape your college experience, and most certainly your life. There is a ton of resources that can make your experience possible: Posted positions, scholarships, Opportunity Hub coaches, and in some cases, passports, will help you get to where you want to go. I’m also happy to be a resource for you and share more details about my experience. Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.