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I majored in International Studies and Chemical Engineering in college. This odd combination was born out of a natural ability in the sciences, coupled with a lifelong fascination with history and culture. My career, obviously, was driven far more by my Chemical Engineering degree, but I am often grateful for the humanities education I received.
I first worked abroad in college when I had the opportunity to intern at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Even without a language barrier, there were differences in the work environment that caught me off guard. For example, in my lab group at home in Raleigh, North Carolina, giving a presentation was a serious affair. At the end of my time in Australia, I was prepared to give a presentation to the group and arrived well-dressed with a formal presentation laid out. I was quite embarrassed when my Australian colleagues remained seated and simply spoke about their research instead of presenting a long PowerPoint presentation. For once, over preparing was not the right call. Australian culture is very, very laid back and I really should have extrapolated that the workplace environment would mirror that. My business casual outfits laid in my suitcase unnecessarily packed.
Based on my past experiences and my college credentials, I jumped on the opportunity to work abroad representing Avid Solutions in Frankfurt, Germany. While I had a great experience working there with many capable people, it reminded me that working abroad is quite a different experience than working in the U.S.
Before heading out to work abroad, there are a lot of things to consider. Most of the advice I have here might be considered obvious, but, unlike Australian presentations, my best advice is that adequate preparation is the key to being successful.
Just Living Life
A handful of essentials are necessary before studying or working abroad. First and foremost, research the electrical plug situation in the country where you will be traveling. Be very careful to get a voltage converter and not a plug adapter. As engineers, we should know this, but I discovered that the distinction is not always so clear when I plugged in upon arriving in Sydney just to fry my phone. Having access to all our electronics is part of life these days and certainly part of being successful at work. I suggest you make a list of what you need to have plugged in at any given time and be prepared. For laptops, most chargers serve as converters as well.
If travelling to Europe, be aware that they are much more “green” than we are in the U.S. and that needs to be respected. In every German household, there are at least five different trash varieties for various recycling. It can be considered quite disrespectful and a blunder to toss trash away into the incorrect bin. Another European quirk involves Sundays, when many stores are closed and most people spend time with their families. As far as I could tell, there’s no Amazon Prime or other quick delivery service, so make sure you’re prepared. A great thing about most European countries, though, is that the tax is included in the price. The price you see on the shelf is exactly what you’d need to pay at the register.
In Germany, cash is still very much king. I found this incredibly annoying as, like any good millennial, I rarely have cash and prefer credit. If travelling there or places more near eastern Europe, be sure to have plenty of cash. While working in Germany, my debit card was frozen for suspected fraud, so I had to scrimp and save before my new one could be shipped over. This was very frustrating and I wound up having money transferred to me through the German post, which was quite a hassle. It would have been much better if I just came over with enough cash to get by.
Politeness in other Languages
In any work space, social norms are important and serve as markers of respect and courtesy. The problem with working abroad, though, is that politeness is expressed differently by different cultures. A little research and selective stereotyping can be very helpful. For example, it’s a long-held stereotype that Germans are punctual. While obviously one cannot generalize about an entire country of people, for the most part, this one is true. It is considered quite rude to be late, although it is possibly considered even more rude to be early. When trying to foster a positive client relationship, punctuality is important in Germany.
It’s also important to be cognizant that others will likely have stereotypes about you based on your country of origin. In my experiences, I have been asked numerous times if I owned a gun and asked to explain my country’s political choices. Try to avoid being the loud and rude American since that is a frequently held stereotype. Remember that when encountering new cultures, nothing is good or bad, just different. Don’t read too much into stereotypes and be cognizant of the culture.
Getting the chance to study or work abroad is a wonderful opportunity. I am lucky to work for an employer like Avid where it is a possibility to work in other countries. It allows me the chance to grow both personally and professionally. I would recommend traveling to other countries to work and study as long as the proper planning takes place so that you are adequately prepared.