4 Lessons Learned from Working Abroad

Let me tell you a little bit about my summer internship in Santiago, Chile. I worked in new product development at Principal Financial, and learned a few key things about working abroad and about myself.

  1. Chileans take their time. I found that out on my first day, when I waited in the lobby for 2 hours before someone came to show me to my cubicle. This lesson continued to cement itself into my brain when they gave me 3 full days to learn about the products and offerings of Principal Chile, and were confused to find me sitting bored in my cubicle after the first day. This big difference in culture led to a lot of downtime for me. I’d go so hard and so fast, as has been engrained into my work ethic, and then have full days where there was nothing for me to do, as they had allotted much more time for me to complete these various tasks. However, this was also their very first U.S. college intern, so I’m sure they didn’t know exactly what to expect and they handled me very well under those circumstances. In general though, everything in Chile is a little more laid back. Even as you see people run for the busses (because they are already late) and lean into their desk for 3 hours (because they maybe missed their first deadline), trust me they are laid back.
  2. In Spanish, I’m an introvert. This summer I spent most lunches alone. If you know me, or if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written, then you know I love to talk. Sure sometimes I like to chill by myself (for instance right now I’m enjoying the spot on music selection at Ingersoll’s Caribou Coffee all by myself and I’m happy about that). But for the most part, I like to be with people. I had to adjust that a bit this summer, because I didn’t know Spanish well enough to understand what everyone was saying, or to communicate my own thoughts even. No one wants to sit with the confused looking gringa for an entire lunch period. Which was hard for me because I am rarely the quiet one at the table. I handled it though. If anything, that experience just pushed me harder to learn this new language.
  3. The whole world does not know English. My bosses all did. And they let me even present my second project’s findings to them in English. But their first language is Spanish. So it kind of sucks for them to always have to cater to HQ’s unilingual staff, and I hated making them switch to English for me, too. I didn’t hate it enough to ask them to stop though- I cannot tell you how much it saved me that my direct supervisor liked to practice his English with me. If you’ve ever been to a foreign country where you can’t understand the language (as much Spanish as I know, I’ll always be grasping at straws trying to master Chilean Spanish), then you understand how encouraging it is to find someone that will speak your language with you. The overarching theme of this bullet point is that it is important to learn another language. Which is why I’m going to Spain for a class in January, and why I’m taking Spanish Film next semester.
  4. Work office hierarchy was real. This part was weird for me. I know the U.S. has some degree of power distance, but I have always firmly ignored that. As a rule almost. I’ve made friends with my teachers and school administrators since elementary school. At the university level, I feel completely comfortable going to a professor’s office just to chat and catch up, probably cracking a few jokes that Chileans may not deem appropriate for one’s superiors. Even at my previous jobs, I’ve always felt comfortable approaching my bosses with new ideas, completed work, questions, etc. Here, however, it was always a wait. I’d ask my boss who would wait a few days to ask his boss who would have to send an email to her boss. If someone would’ve just given me the top guy’s phone number though I could’ve taken care of it in like 2 minutes. Not in Chile though. They keep strict boundaries in the office. However, outside of the office everyone seemed to be friends, although the lines were still lightly drawn. This is true everywhere in Chile (the class divide is much more apparent than I had thought prior to my summer there), but was especially interesting for me to experience within the office setting.

This experience also taught me that, while I did have some lonely lunches, I am stronger than I always give myself credit for. I’m great at being alone, which I would not have figured out if I had stayed at home with all of my friends and family for the summer. I choose not to be alone generally, but at least I know I can do it.

I would love to have the chance to work abroad again. Maybe not in Chile, but in a new setting, with new challenges and new adventures and places to explore. I think this incredible opportunity really showed me more of what I want from life, which is to always be learning, climbing obstacles, and making relationships.

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