Must students make a choice between internships and study abroad?

Why business schools need to adopt strategies that make it easier for students to pursue both of these important experiences.

Must Students Make a Choice Between Internships and Study Abroad?

A FEW YEARS back, a graduating senior came to me in dismay. She was a student leader with a 3.9 GPA, who was both personable and articulate. In her time at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management in Raleigh, she had pursued a concentration in finance and a minor in Spanish. She had even spent her junior year abroad in Spain, where she became fluent in the language and culture. And, yet, she was having no success in landing a position post-graduation. What was missing?

What was missing was an internship. Because she was an out-of-state student with high tuition costs, she had worked as a waitress to earn spending money; she spent the summer before her junior year abroad mastering Spanish. Our Spanish partner’s semester did not end until mid-June, so she did not return from Spain until late June. By then, she had missed the window to interview for a summer internship.

It was at that point that I realized that business schools face a conundrum in our experiential learning strategies. While Poole College promoted the importance of completing study abroad experiences and at least one meaningful internship during the bachelor’s program, the timing of study abroad and internship interviews conflicted.

Three outcomes emerged from that conversation. First, this student wrote an open letter to all Poole students, in which she told her story and urged other students to participate in the internship process. Second, I talked to other faculty about rethinking the timing and length of our study abroad opportunities. Finally, we asked our corporate and global academic partners for their input on ways we might mitigate conflicts between study abroad and internships. We wanted to make it easier for our students to take full advantage of both.


Our primary challenge was timing. The most valuable time for students to complete an internship is during the second semester of their junior year, the following summer, or the first semester of senior year. At this point, students already have studied their concentrations or major disciplines in-depth and are ready to apply what they have learned in real-world settings. It’s also crucial because many companies will not hire graduates who have not participated in at least one internship experience.

However, we know that study abroad is just as critical, because today’s global businesses also are looking for graduates who have lived in other countries and know that how their cultures think is not how the rest of the world thinks. Many business schools offer study abroad experiences that last from one week to a year or more, but most of us would agree that the longer students are integrated with students of another culture, the better.

Just as students are better prepared to pursue internships midway through their junior years, this is also when they are mature enough to consider studying overseas for a semester or more. How can we reconcile the two experiences?


At Poole, we have made several changes to make it easier for undergraduates to pursue both critical opportunities:

We start the conversation early. We now introduce students to our career services office, as well as our internships and international programs, before they even begin their studies. This conversation has become a focal point at Poole’s freshman orientation, which is the perfect place for students and their parents to come to understand the value of these experiences and to start thinking about the timing for each. After this introduction, professional advisors help students coordinate a curriculum that integrates the options they want to pursue.

We offer introductory courses as early as possible. Too often, business schools spread introductory courses throughout freshman and sophomore years. But by offering all introductory business courses in the freshman year, schools provide students with greater flexibility to pursue study abroad.

That’s why Poole has restructured its curriculum to make introductory courses in accounting, economics, statistics, and marketing available to freshmen. Students who come to Poole with advanced placement courses can take even more courses earlier rather than later.

We select exchange partners carefully. We now look for academic partners who teach business courses rather than—or along with—courses such as art, literature, and language. By coordinating our curriculum with theirs, we can ensure that our students studying abroad will continue progressing in their majors and concentrations.

We explore internship opportunities in other countries. We work with ten to 12 exchange partners, many of which help arrange internships for their own students. A number of our partners are willing to provide this service to our students as well.

Of course, some issues will arise. For instance, we prepare students and their parents for the possibility of work visa complications. We tell them that some internships might be unpaid or provide only subsistence stipends, and that in countries like China, internships for international students are often limited to six weeks. We also let them know that unless they gain fluency in the host country’s language, they will have limited internship opportunities.

In addition, the process of obtaining internships in other countries might be very different than it is in the U.S. For that reason, Poole’s career services office maintains an online listing of available internships abroad and keeps students informed of different application processes. It then falls on the student to contact companies and arrange interviews.

We tap our existing employer contacts. We reach out to our local contacts and companies who have hired our students in the past to determine if their international and global operations can provide internships for students abroad. We also ask these partners about providing early interviewing opportunities for students who are going abroad for a semester or a year, so that these students can come home to pre-arranged internships. This is a time-consuming process, but it’s worth it.

We create a variety of study abroad formats. Although we believe that students benefit most from study abroad experiences that last for a semester or more, we realize that not all students can be away for that long. Therefore, Poole created a series of six-week summer programs, delivered from mid-May through June, for rising sophomores and rising juniors. Each of these programs is hosted by one of our global partners, and students spend at least one week exploring what it takes to do business in the host’s country. Once students return from these shorter experiences, they still have time to complete six- to eight-week internships before classes start in the fall.

We have established an office of international programs within the business school, rather than relying solely on the university’s international programs office. By managing these activities internally, we can ensure that we select the right partners and coordinate our curriculum with the curricula of our partner schools. Without having its own office of international programs, Poole would not have been able to address most of the issues discussed above.


Now that we have these strategies in place, we have more deeply ingrained study abroad and internships into Poole’s experiential learning philosophy. Of the students in our May 2018 graduating class, 85 percent had experienced at least one meaningful internship during their time at Poole. In the 2017–2018 academic year, 300 students, or about 15 percent of our student body, participated in study abroad activity. That’s up from just 7 percent in 2012–2013.

Ending this article where it began, the student I mentioned above did secure a position with a global financial services firm about two months after graduation. However, she left the firm after just three years, disillusioned with financial services. This is something she might have learned had she completed an internship in the industry. But all’s well that ends well. During her year abroad in Spain, she discovered a love of fashion. Today, she is a brand manager for a national fashion retailer!


Ira Wiess Ira R. Weiss is professor and former dean at North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management in Raleigh.


This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].