When and where did you intern abroad?
From May to July, 2012, I interned in a city called Addis Ababa, which is the capital of the beautiful country of Ethiopia, in Africa. Addis Ababa is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, and not at all like your typical “African city” as portrayed by the UN commercial that we see in North America. The people are incredibly nice and friendly, and the temperatures are surprisingly bearable at 2,355m high!
What made you want to intern abroad?
First of all, I’d always wanted to go to Africa and see for myself what it’s really like there. The media in North America is incredibly good at portraying Africa in general as this country with child soldiers, dry mud huts, lions and starving children. Sure – this is true for some parts of Africa, but definitely not for all, and definitely not for Ethiopia. Being a commerce student, I also always find it interesting to see how different countries conduct business. Having lived in Europe, I felt that I had a good idea of how business works there. Studying in North America also gave me a pretty good idea of how to conduct business there. But Ethiopia is MUCH different! I wanted to see first-hand how such a fast-developing country with such rich raw materials is keeping up with its ever-growing demand!
How did you conduct your search? What made you select your program/company?
The first week of my first year of university, one of my professors talked about this program that he leads every year to Palaborwa, South Africa. He showed us an amazing video from the program, and I knew that one day I wanted to go there and do the exact same thing. By my second year I’d decided it was time for me to go, and I applied to the program. I had to fill out an application form and go through three separate interviews. Eventually, the interviewers came to a consensus and decided that I was one of the three people they would send to Addis Ababa!
What was the biggest surprise about your intern experience abroad?
The biggest surprise about my intern experience was simply Africa itself. Did you know that you can buy Nutella there? Many people would be shocked to hear that! People often misunderstand what Africa is really like! Maybe a quote from my blog would sum it up best:
Africa is a rather LARGE continent, just like Europe and just like North America. You can’t just judge a book or in this case a continent by its cover, or how the media likes to portray Africa in our countries. Most African countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and South Africa among others are extremely developed. They have electricity, flowing water, tall buildings, roads, schools, Internet, television, shops, food from different cultures, shopping malls, etc! The list goes on. I’ve personally been invited by a woman into her mud-house and you would be surprised how spacey it is and how modern. She had electricity, beds and even a television. Fancy, fancy, eh?
So to cut a long story short, Ethiopia was nothing like I’d ever imagined and I’m glad to be able to share my stories with whoever is ready to listen.
How did you deal with the cultural divide during your internship?
This is a tough question to answer, since the cultural divide is a very fragile topic. For me it was difficult to deal with because I believe they have a very different living philosophy than we do! From my understanding (and I might be wrong) Ethiopians believe that if you have something, you should share it. Because I’m white, I was automatically presumed to have some wealth, which meant wherever I went I got charged five times as much as the local Ethiopian. For example, I had to bargain and argue over the price of very single coffee I bought because they overcharged me, and I had to do this sort of thing 10, 20, even 30 times a day!
What was the most important thing you learned about communicating in a foreign culture?
The single most important thing is to try to learn some words in their language, because they REALLY appreciate it and it immediately puts a smile on their face, even if you say a word in a terrible North American accent. For me, I had to learn Amharic, which is almost as difficult as Mandarin, but I wanted to learn. Every day we’d learn two or three words, so by the end we could communicate quite well – and it was fun to communicate in their language. If there was a misunderstanding, we could always use our hands or try with English, but we always tried in Amharic first!
What is your number one tip for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
The most important thing for me was to go with an open mind, and to have zero expectations. Traveling with an open mind and being flexible is important almost anywhere you travel. You have to adapt and things aren’t always the way you want them to be. For example, I’m a punctuality freak. Having grown in Switzerland, I thought even North Americans weren’t very punctual. I got a nice surprise in Ethiopia! When you say, let’s meet at 2:00, the person might arrive at 2:30, 3:00, 4:00, or not at all! You have to have an open mind, be flexible, and maybe find something else to do during this time.
What did you miss most about home?
Honestly, the bathroom for me can sometimes be a place of Zen, a place where I don’t hurry, and a place where I take my time. More than just bathrooms, I missed toilets... One hotel in Addis Ababa, called the Radisson Blu, had standard toilets and seriously, it was one of the best days there for me! I was so happy to find flushing, modern toilets, with working tap water, and even some soap and soft hand towels. In the city one can usually find a decent bathroom in a restaurant, but in the countryside it’s almost impossible to find a bathroom! I still have nightmares about a bathroom break in Arbaminch, Southern Ethiopia. I opened the door to the bathroom only to get swarmed by millions of flies. Of course there was no actual toilet – just a hole covered with, you know, gross stuff! It was a little disgusting, but in the end, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
What are your future plans for going abroad and for your career?
Well, I just completed my application to continue my studies at the City University of Hong Kong in 2013. I visited Hong Kong last year and was amazed by its culture and 100% wanted to go back. So I applied through a program at my school, and even got a $1,000 scholarship to support my studies there. My future career plans are still up in the air. I hope to get a job at either P&G, PepsiCo or L'Oreal Canada working in sales or marketing. Then eventually I would like to move back to Zurich (where I'm from) and pursue my MBA. Of course these plans probably will change hundreds of times, because in the end if there's an opportunity along the way, I won’t say no. For now, all I know is that I will be in Hong Kong soon and I'm beyond excited to start yet another chapter of my experiences abroad.
Celine is a proactive and business-minded student and it’s clear from her response that she understands that the best way to learn about a foreign country is to live and work in it. She also understands that interacting with foreign cultures and building cross-cultural communication skills is her key to professional success and to an enriching personal life. Celine has already made plans for her next trip abroad, and has wisely opted to go to a different region of the world to further expand her international understanding. Celine has aspirations to work in sales and marketing with a large corporation. Hong Kong is a busy center of global commerce and will provide her with ample opportunity to maximize the professional potential of her study abroad experience. We recommend that she professionalize her experience by, for instance, teaching business English to Hong Kong professionals part-time. As someone with a clear passion for cross-cultural engagement, Celine could also he consider shifting her career goals to the international sales and marketing field.
- Career-boosting Strategies While Studying Abroad will motivate you to think about the professional possibilities of your time studying abroad.
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- Read the recently-updated International Business Careers section, which is full of expert advice about building a career in international business.