Preparing for Co-op Abroad – The Ultimate Internship

March 3, 2011 at 10:40 PM

Preparing for Co-op Abroad – The Ultimate Internship


Lily Chryssis and Jim Stellar


Lily is a graduate of Northeastern University in 2004 as a major in Political Science & International Affairs who took advantage of the co-op program.  Later she got a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.  She returned to Northeastern as an employee and is now a Senior International Cooperative Education Counselor in their Department of Cooperative Education, helping students to prepare for International Co-op.  Lily thinks strategically about universities and international experiences, working up a brief white paper on the possibilities for study and work partnerships in Lebanon that I read I was still Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at NU. 


Learning from international experience is a favorite topic of this blog. For example, we already have a post from a student who combined study abroad with later work abroad, a post on the kinds of learning in abroad programs from a past director of the study abroad office at NU, a post from a student on having a job abroad and then a second post from the same student on the culture shock that can develop when one returns home.  More recently, we put up a post on what it is like to be mistaken for a native abroad.  Other blog posts have consider this topic from the perspectives of coming to America to live and/or go to school and even on coop.


Lily and I decided to write something in this area but specifically on what it is like for a cooperative education counselor to try to prepare students for work abroad experiences.  Lily, let’s start with a brief description of your job, focusing on the challenges of preparing students to go abroad and importantly to work abroad.  What kind of background, motivation, skills, etc. do you see as leading to a successful work abroad experience?


The first thing my team and I look for in an international co-op candidate is flexibility. If a student comes into our office with the idea that they are going to find their dream job in their dream location then it is time for a bit of a reality check. International co-op works a bit differently from domestic. It is important for students to understand that this is a very unique experience and should be compared to neither a study abroad nor a domestic co-op. For example, unlike study abroad, a student on an international co-op in Nantong, China, is likely to be the only NU student working in Nantong with no “support system” housed at a host university on which they can lean. This takes a highly motivated, independent, and mature student; particularly, one who is interested in the overall global experience and views it as their opportunity to develop professionally, personally, and culturally. From my experience working in international co-op so far, I have found that those students who have maintained an open-minded and flexible attitude throughout the duration of their co-op are the ones who end up having the most positive experience and are also more likely to go abroad again, possibly for a future career. It can be a challenge for my team and I to ensure that we are making the best match by referring the right student for the right job, therefore, we try our hardest to get to know each one of our advisees on a personal level.


For what kind of employment situation do you look into which to put this flexible, mature student?


We have three counselors in our office, including myself. We counsel students according to major and each of us has our own relationships/contacts with different organizations and companies abroad. One counselor focuses on civic engagement so for example, students interested in giving back to a community through service/volunteer work have the opportunity to do so through a reputable agency. These types of “jobs” are available to all majors: business, international affairs, engineering, health science, human services, etc. In addition, we have the more traditional type of coop job available for students in business and engineering as well as research positions for science, social science and humanities students. We try to place students based on their past professional experience (if any) and future career and/or academic goals, more often than not we are faced with success stories. It is clear that these types of eye-opening experiences help to shape our students’ future career goals and, as international educators, that is exactly what we hope for.


Last Question:  What do you think the students get out of it this experience?  When you answer compare it to what would be or were your reactions.


Everyone’s story is unique and what one gains from an international experience can be very personal. However, for the most part, students should be coming out of this experience as stronger global citizens. A strong global citizen is one who is capable of living out of their comfort zone, attempting to understand and learn from their host culture, and applying what they’ve learned to their future. I hope that the American students I send abroad will eventually recognize their role as world citizens and consequently regard their participation in global opportunities as key to their professional success.


Notice how the words “strong global citizen” used just above is an emotional term.  The reference is not to the content knowledge learned or even the language skills improved, although those are undoubtedly benefits of the work abroad experience.  Beyond the intellectual training even from study abroad, this maturity and strength from work abroad is what the global companies want, this is what international leadership is, and it is what our complex rapidly changing world needs.  Experience teaches the persuasive powerful part of the core of a person and starts a virtuous upward spiral in a way that compliments and leverages academic knowledge but in a way that academic knowledge alone cannot do even if delivered abroad.  Why leave that effect for students to achieve on their own after they graduate college and for global companies to have to build in on their own?

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