Structuring an International Internship Program

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Obtaining a meaningful internship is an increasingly important step in every student’s career path. As reported byGallup, students from 2002-2016 were found to be twice as likely to acquire a good job after graduation if they had a relevant internship during their schooling experience. More and more majors in colleges and universities across the world require internships for graduation, while the others highly encourage them. And for those interested in an international career, or with a desire to develop a foreign language proficiency, an international internship is likely what they’re looking for. But finding those internships, particularly overseas, can be a challenge.

Thankfully, many institutions are starting to develop programs – partnerships between organizations and universities – to provide those opportunities in an easy and mutually beneficial manner. However, making these programs affordable for the schools to host and manageable for the professors and directors to coordinate is difficult. Below are a few tips from Tony Brown, Professor of Russian and Director of the Moscow Internship Program at Brigham Young University.

Partner with In-country Directors

Although most of Brown’s students want an international experience to practice their Russian, each student has a different career path and varying professional goals. Recognizing their individual situations, Brown says: “In order to provide the real-world experience that students want and need, students must be matched with not only their language capabilities, but also their desired field work and career path.” Finding those distinct opportunities requires considerable time and searching. With the right connections, however, Brown suggests that the types of internships available are limitless.

When Brown was creating the Moscow Internship Program for BYU and started searching for the various desired internships, the first thing he realized he needed to do was connect with someone in Moscow that could act as an in-country director. Because of his responsibilities and commitments to be physically present at BYU, it would be difficult for Brown to search through Moscow to find the perfect opportunities himself. So, finding someone with greater access to opportunities in and around Moscow became extremely valuable. Likewise, Brown advises, anyone starting an international internship program should find someone who can be their in-country director.

Adequately Prepare Students

Once the right internship is found for each student, the program should have the correct structures in place to prepare them. Ensuring participants are ready for their internship will help build rapport with the associated companies and the in-country director. The three types of preparation Brown suggests are cultural, linguistic, and mental.

A first step is to create a preparation course. The course should be designed to prepare students for the social and intellectual interactions they will encounter. Teaching students about intercultural collaboration, awareness, and communication will help them avoid embarrassing and awkward situations. Introducing students to the new words, traditions, and even foods they will experience can help their internship experiences go smoothly.

If the internship will be done in a foreign language, students should go through an oral proficiency interview. Although they don’t need to speak the language perfectly, ensuring students have a solid foundation will protect both the organizations providing the experiences and the students themselves. The companies know that the students are likely not yet masters of the language, but in order to receive the desired value from the students’ work, a certain level of proficiency is needed. Additionally, in order for students to have dynamic and rewarding experiences, they need to feel prepared to swim, not drown, in the foreign language.

Because adjusting to new situations and struggling to communicate in a foreign language can be challenging, Brown also suggests preparing students for the mental health difficulties that may arise. Sometimes this involves stress-management training, while other times it involves connecting students with a mental health specialist that will be available to help them through their international stay. Providing the necessary resources will help students thrive throughout this important and valuable educational experience.

Satisfy Their Learning

The program director’s job is not over once the students are adequately prepared. The program needs to “not only change how the students use their time; it should change their character.” Because most internships provide students with course credit, the associated class should provide the structure needed to help students make their internship a culminating experience, not just a couple fun months to fill their time. Brown suggests a few methods to do just that.

Incorporating further language training will help the students perform well and make good use of their unique environment. Brown suggests focusing the language training in the debate format, where students learn to think on their feet and form arguments and counterarguments. This will be a particularly valuable skill as they transform their language ability into business proficiency. Having a required 96 hours of intense language instruction while in the country is the goal for students in Brown’s program.

The rest of the course curriculum should be centered around reinforcing the content learned in the prep course, allowing the students to showcase their experience to their co-workers at the end of their internship, and learning how to articulate their experience to future employers. The prep material can be easily reinforced as the students take time to reflect on and recognize the various unique cultural situations they’ve been exposed to. Making a presentation in their work setting at the end of the internship will give students an opportunity to practice presenting in a foreign language and showcase what they learned through their work. And learning to articulate the experience will allow students to leverage what they’ve learned to gain more experience in the future.


Creating international internship programs within universities and colleges helps bridge the gap between educational and real-world experience. However, doing so can be difficult for directors. Having established and successfully created a program himself, Tony Brown outlines the best way to make it a smooth and beneficial experience for the director and student. Step one, find an in-country director to partner with and help establish the necessary connections. Step two, prepare the students to meet the unique cross-cultural and language challenges. And step three, solidify the students’ learning with continued structure throughout their internship experiences.

To learn more about structuring international internship programs, watch Tony Brown’s 2020 Global Perspectives Summit presentation here.

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