Yesterday's NY Times article entitled "Internships Abroad: Unpaid, With a $10,000 Price Tag" highlighted some of the arguments for and against international internship opportunities available to college students. As the founder of a program in this space, I think it is important to highlight a few key points that the article missed. When you weigh the "bells and whistles" offered by work abroad providers against those of similarly-priced study abroad programs (yep, see below), the argument for global internship experience is stronger.
"The Bells and Whistles"
The best work abroad programs charge students for bundled services that are tied to hard costs: housing, in-country emergency support, insurance, and professional/social events. And some connect students to a robust professional network and career mentors. The vast majority charge less than $7,000 for a summer program.
Few people notice that university study abroad programs may charge similar fees to provide some, but not all, of these bundled services. They also parse out tuition as a separate cost. As examples, I picked one public and one private university mentioned in the NYT article:
Private programs are in line with these university services. And when you factor in the career preparation and development, the "bells and whistles" sound much better.
Students at Georgia Tech and Yale have a choice this summer: do I spend $6-7,000 PLUS tuition to live and study abroad, or do I spend $5-7,000 to live and work abroad? The better question is: Do I want to study Latin American history, or develop a LatAm market entry strategy for a company? Each student may have a different answer. I actually tried both. I studied in Spain and later interned in Argentina. Eleven years later, I founded an experiential learning program…not a study abroad program.
The broader paid vs. unpaid internship debate is a red herring here, and better left for another day. Living abroad, whether for work or study, often comes with higher costs. Students should analyze the costs and focus on the outcomes.
According to NAFSA.org, less than 10% of U.S. college students study abroad. Far less graduate with global work experience. Amongst a sea of resumes that highlight near-perfect GPAs and maybe a couple run-of-the-mill finance or marketing internships, a global perspective may be the difference-maker.
As an interested party, I do not expect anyone to take my word for it. Ask any of our students. Working with entrepreneurs abroad, our students build web platforms and hardware devices, develop market entry strategies, and analyze customer data to inform digital marketing campaigns. With guidance from their assigned "Sage" (career mentor), these students later land jobs at powerhouse companies such as McKinsey, Deutsche Bank, Accenture, and Deloitte, while others pursue entrepreneurship (at home and abroad).
If done right, the work abroad model works. More students want to gain international experience, and few universities have the resources and the network to provide such opportunities. More universities, in addition to foundations and government agencies, should listen to students and fund work abroad opportunities (whether university or vetted private providers). Study abroad programs will continue to offer enriching academic and cultural opportunities, but we should embrace global work experience, systemically, as a legitimate complement to students' coursework.