When Max,* an undergraduate student from the US, learned he was on the verge of getting fired from his international internship, he was shocked. However, this pivotal moment turned out to be the most critical opportunity for learning at his placement.

Max thought he had integrated well into his new team at an advocacy firm in London, England. A real sign of the strength of his connections with his colleagues was a casual remark from the person sitting next to him: “I don’t mind if you are on Facebook all day, but the boss would.” Max carried on spending time on Facebook, after all his project was to improve the company’s social media strategy, in line with his background as a communications major. By the end of the week, the company had contacted FIE’s internship team to notify us they were giving Max a warning, and if his performance didn’t improve, they would end the internship.

What went wrong, and why? When we met with the company and the student, we uncovered a classic case of cultural miscommunication. Max’s British supervisor and colleague hadn’t given him direct feedback, but in a typically British style instead indirectly “hinted” at the desired outcome. What Max interpreted as a sign of friendly comradery was actually meant as a warning: “Get off Facebook, please. We don’t think you are being productive.” Fortunately, Max had the support of FIE’s in-country staff to navigate the situation, help translate from British to American, assure the company that Max actually was doing the work they had intended, and get Max back on track. He went on to have a great internship.

Max’s story is just one example of why international internships are high-impact practices. We know from neuroscience research that the novelty of a new environment can improve memory retention, and surprise may be even better at promoting learning. Moreover, by engaging students’ emotions, we can tap into affective learning. While higher education has traditionally focussed on knowledge attainment, or cognitive learning, we now recognise that emotions and cognition are deeply interconnected, and tapping into students’ feelings leads to more profound learning experiences. As Jyoti Devi (Brinda) Mahadeo and Rabindra Nepal write in the Times Higher Education: “Learning is not solely about acquiring knowledge; it’s about developing resilience and grit to overcome challenges. Moreover, affective learning acknowledges the significance of facing failures and setbacks as part of the growth process.”

Interning abroad isn’t meant to be easy. The greatest learning comes from those acute and challenging moments, when students discover the most about who they are and what they still have to learn. As an educator, I celebrate opportunities like Max had to face and overcome challenges. Gonzalo Chavez, former Dean at Hult International Business School, says that higher education institutions need to get students ready for discomfort and challenges in their careers. In other words, “students have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

At FIE, we weave this key piece of learning throughout our study and intern programmes, from on-site orientations to the seminars students take alongside their internship placements. Through reflective practices such as journaling and group discussions, students unravel why they are frustrated or uneasy in an unfamiliar environment and gain insight into their values, professional goals, and cultural biases.

The now classic meme of What Brits say vs what they actually mean is a humorous take, but does contain some kernels of truth. Reading the meme may give us a laugh, but livingthe meme, coming face-to-face with the cultural differences, has much greater impact. In our seminars and on-site support, we guide students through their individual challenges and successes, and create the space for introspection to recognise how their personal and professional dimensions are maturing, while also identifying the skill gaps which still need filling.

These discussions combine neatly with observations from the career readiness and employment sector. The counterpart of cognitive learning is technical knowledge, or “hard skills”. Affective learning might more closely align with what has traditionally been labelled “soft skills”. These include communication, adaptability, teamwork, empathy, creativity and other competences which are not specific to a particular job or sector.

In 2017, as part of the World Economic Forum’s report on workforce reskilling, Stephane Kasriel, now Head of Commerce at Meta, observed that within five years most technical skills will have lost about half their value. When the education curriculum prioritises discrete technical skills, students may be acquiring the competencies which will have the least value over the length of their careers. With the astonishing improvements in artificial intelligence since then, imagine how sharply the value of some skills have and will further decline.

A more apt term for “soft skills” has emerged: “durable skills”. These skills sustain professionals throughout the length and breadth of a career. Research in 2021 by America Succeeds found that across all jobs in all sectors durable skills account for 7 of the 10 most requested skills. Moreover, employers seek these skills 3.8 times more frequently than the top-rated technical or hard skills. Futurist Bernard Marr notes that artificial intelligence is currently least able to replace humans when it comes to the important skills of critical thinking, complex decision making, empathy and creativity. As AI continues to reshape the employment landscape, strong durable skills are what will ensure a professional’s sustained relevance and success.

Every year surveys from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) report a disconnect between how students and employers perceive new college graduate proficiency. Students believe they are already highly talented across a variety of important durable skills such as communication, leadership and self-development. But employers disagree. The largest discrepancy is in professionalism, a competency which incorporates such basic areas as punctuality, dependability and work ethic. It therefore makes sense that NACE’s research also shows employers cite internship experience as the top differentiator between equally qualified candidates. It is through real, practical, affective and surprising learning experiences that students gain the durable skills employers want and need.

Returning to Max, his international internship with FIE not only afforded him the opportunity to develop the technical skills related to his major, but to become more self-aware of the nuances in relationships between colleagues, improve his cross-cultural communication skills and, perhaps most importantly, be resilient in the face of setbacks.

I regularly tell my students: I hope your internship isn’t perfect. Instead, I hope you will have challenges – significant challenges which truly test your abilities. It is through navigating these surprising hurdles you’ll find the best opportunities to enhance the durable skills crucial for personal and professional growth.

*Name and some details have been changed

Published by Rebecca Claris, MEd Assoc CIPD
Senior Director of Quality and Enhancement

FiEld Insights straight to your Inbox

* indicates required
  • QAAreviewed
  • 2015 QUIP logo color
  • FEA Access Partner Logo 1
  • NationalCodeBeAssured