What to Know Before Sending Students for Internships in Vietnam

Posted by SE Vietnam - Student Exchange Vietnam

“I don’t know what to do, everything here is already perfect!”

“I’m not an expert in this field, I don’t know what I can do.”

“We don’t have enough time to complete this project.”

“One supervisor told me to do this, but the other supervisor told me something completely different!”

“No one here speaks English well enough to understand me.”

“It takes so much time to get things approved by my supervisor.”

“I feel so isolated at work.”

“Everyone stares at me on the streets and it makes me uncomfortable.”

These are some of the common complaints we hear from students when doing an internship in Vietnam. But why do some students complain while others seem to have no problems at all? The difference is in attitude and problem-solving abilities. These two things can have a huge impact on how the internship in Vietnam goes and having proper preparation to face these difficulties can make a difference. This summer we welcomed 11 university students from an American university for service learning, project-based internships. The group of 11 students were placed in four different organizations with various projects. The four projects were to promote STEM education by finding corporate sponsors, to help women entrepreneurs in Vietnam, to help create an environmental education program for local schools, and to improve a local center for children with autism. Through this experience, we learned a lot about how we can better prepare students for what to expect before arriving in Vietnam. Project-based internships like this are different from corporate internships. Instead of having daily tasks, the students had one big project or goal to work towards which brought a different set of challenges.


Language Barrier and the Role of the Local Buddy

With project-based tasks, interacting with local people may be more necessary, and since there is a language barrier, this can be challenging. We need to ensure the students have access to a local Vietnamese person, either a mentor or local buddy, who can assist them with these tasks when their supervisor is too busy. Google Translate has also greatly improved it’s Vietnamese as of recently, and while it is not perfect, it is a very useful tool. Getting the students used to using Google Translate to communicate could also be beneficial in giving the students a better feeling of independence and self-accomplishment.


Proper Preparation Before Arrival

Preparing the students before arrival could also help with expectation management. Students typically arrive in Vietnam excited and ambitious about what they will accomplish during their time here. While that is wonderful, it is also important to keep their expectations realistic so that they are not disappointed. The first thing students notice upon arriving is how hot the weather is and how chaotic the traffic is. Another thing that also happens as foreigners is stares. The Vietnamese are curious about visitors, especially outside of touristy areas. When staying in Vietnam long-term, students are likely in areas that aren’t filled with tourists which can be confusing to Vietnamese people as it can be very uncommon. These are things that take a bit of adjusting to, as it is a completely different environment than which they are accustomed. The other thing about Vietnam is that it is unpredictable, and students must be prepared for anything and have good problem-solving abilities. Things like the water shutting off in the middle of a shower or the bus breaking down on the way to work are things that can happen that are out of anyone else’s control and complaining cannot fix these things. Coming in with an open mind and the ability to be flexible is very important when coming to Vietnam long term.

On the bus to work

Communication with Supervisor

Beyond the general environment, the working environment in Vietnam is also much different, especially when it comes to communication. Aside from the obvious language barrier that almost everyone faces, there are also issues when it comes to knowing who to communicate with in which situation. In case of more than two supervisors in one project, typically we have one who is directly in charge of the students, but that supervisor will not always be available. It is important that students do not just stay stagnant until they are able to speak with their specified supervisor, but instead take matters into their own hands. Students can find someone else they can ask by getting out of their comfort zone and making friends with other employees (even if their English is limited! Remember, Google Translate). If the student isn’t sure what work to do, they can analyze the needs of the host company, do research, and come up with ideas. Having students take their own initiative is important when working in Vietnam, as there may not always be set instructions or guidelines to follow. The way of thinking and the way of working is different in Vietnam, and students must be prepared for what to expect. In the same token, we must prepare organizations for what to expect when taking on a foreign intern and ensure that both sides are on the same page.


Lessons Learned

Additional preparation on all ends before the students’ arrival can help make the transition into life in Vietnam easier for everyone involved. Preparing students for what to expect and how to act in any situation they may come across, in addition to preparing organizations for the needs of foreign students, can improve the overall outcome for all. The students will be able to receive a better experience and have better expectation management and the organizations will have better outcomes from the students’ work. The beginning of an international internship is an overwhelming and exciting time for everyone, but for some people it can be too much to handle at once. It is our job to make this experience the best it can be, and we believe that when everyone is on the same page the overall experience is improved. This can only be achieved through proper preparation before arrival and managing expectations.


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