The Importance of Working Overseas: Two Perspectives on International Internships

Today’s students need global skills and corporations increasingly are looking for globally-trained employees. With this in mind, the UW-Madison Division of International Studies, in partnership with the School of Business, the College of Engineering and Cross-College Biology Education, as well as friends and alumni, has launched the International Academic Internships Initiative (IAII).

Last summer, in its pilot year, the IAII placed seven students at locations in Japan and the Netherlands. Participants, both students and their employers, were extremely satisfied with the program, which hopes to provide 15 to 20 internships in 2007. Here we explore two perspectives on the program’s importance, and how students can make a meaningful contribution to their company and the state of Wisconsin – one from an alumnus who was instrumental in launching the program, another from a student participant.

Spearheading the Project – A Donor’s Perspective

Jack Lavin (BBA ’76), a member of the School of Business Advisory Board, became involved in the IAII program as a lead donor in 2005 after the School’s dean, Mike Knetter, introduced him to the dean of International Studies, Gilles Bousquet. “I have a personal interest in international business and an entrepreneurial nature,” says Lavin. “I liked the idea of a joint venture between the School of Business and the Division of International Studies and was invested in getting it on track.” Lavin, along with other donors from Wisconsin to Japan, is providing valuable funding for the program’s participants. Students receive scholarships of up to $2,500 for their internship.

Lavin identified with the program because, as a UW-Madison student, he was a member of the International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences (AIESEC) and spent a summer working at a Swedish bank. While the job itself was not the most exciting he’d had, the experience of working abroad always stayed with him. Lavin believes that today’s students and the state of Wisconsin need a program like the IAII in order to compete in the global economy. “It’s not necessarily natural to think of Wisconsin as an international hub, or of a global education being important for the state,” he says. “But as the world becomes more interconnected, UW must demonstrate its ability to present a well-rounded international perspective.”

Lavin says he is curious to see what happens next to the internship students. “When I met the students last fall, they reinforced my good feeling about supporting the program. There is no substitute for this kind of experience. These are serious students whose enthusiasm about the program will permeate throughout the campus.”

Lavin believes that the students aren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. He says companies benefit, too. “The students bring a fresh perspective to the business and have great energy. The company may even come away with a permanent employee.”

The International Academic Internship Experience – One Student’s Perspective

When Max Miller heard about the International Academic Internship Initiative, he was quick to sign up. “I’m just really into this kind of thing,” says Miller, a fifth year senior majoring in finance and international business but with over 20 credits of Chinese under his belt. “I’m really obsessed with living and working abroad.”

Miller, who is from Milwaukee, had studied abroad in China and Hong Kong, but the academic internship offered him the chance to have a new but also practical adventure. Miller was assigned to the Toshiba Corporation in Tokyo where he worked in the procurement department. By Miller’s account, Toshiba kept him very busy, giving him an invaluable perspective not just in one field but of the company as a whole. He was sent to different levels of the company and to various locations, including area plants and suppliers. He attended daily briefings and did research on Toshiba’s competitors to relay to top management. He examined product costs and assessed product lines. He edited letters translated from Japanese to English that the company sent its suppliers. In procurement, he was especially interested in learning about the company’s cost management approaches.

Before signing up for the program, Miller had been interested in working in Asia after graduation. The IAII experience gave him a start but it was especially rewarding because, in the procurement department, Miller became intrigued by a potentially new career path.

According to Miller, increasing numbers of fellow-students in Business are realizing that these kinds of international experiences, “learning to live outside your comfort zone,” are important both personally and professionally. “[The IAII experience] was very hectic, very stressful, but I loved it, every minute,” Miller says.