Developing a program that places business students in international internships is an admirable goal for a university, but building something sustainable and scalable has never been easy. International internships can cost as much as $8,000, so they can be an expensive learning experience. And many companies with operations outside the US only give international assignments to full-time employees, which makes quality internships hard to come by.
The pandemic made matters worse, at least initially. Opportunities to send students anywhere, let alone out of the country, dried up faster than a flat rock in the Sahara Desert – until an unexpected spring broke forth in the form of virtual internships.
“It was a silver lining in this COVID cloud,” said Renee Clay, director for career services and student programs at the Sam M. Walton College of Business.
In 2020, only one Walton College student was scheduled to work in an international internship, and that fell through because of travel restrictions related to the pandemic. But Kayla Woessner, a program manager and career coach for the Walton College, and Megan Hull of the university’s study abroad office went to work with placement providers and developed a signature virtual internship program that has gained recognition throughout the industry.
Since 2020, 34 students from the Walton College have completed or been placed in virtual international internships working with teams in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Costa Rica.
“There’s a very wide variety of placements available,” Woessner said. “A majority of our students do marketing. Sometimes it’s social media marketing, content planning for websites, different things like that.”
Woessner and Hull are giving a presentation on the UA program in April at the Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA) annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia. And Lydia Mollerup, a Walton College student majoring in marketing, will be at the conference to accept the 2022 Peggy Jarvie International Work Experience Award as recognition for her work as an intern with Costa Rica-based Coamesa.
There are some things a virtual internship can’t replicate, of course, but the students still gain valuable international experience, and at a fraction of the cost that comes with traveling. And while the students aren’t in-country, they take part in cultural experiences such as virtual pasta- making and virtual tours of museums.
“Even though I was not able to be in-person,” Mollerup said, “I still felt like I was a part of the company and was included. ... I also learned so much about Costa Rica’s culture and it has been eye-opening to know the differences.”
Mollerup’s internship was unique in that it originated with a presentation Clay gave to the Dean’s Alumni Advisory Council (DAAC). Rodolfo Leiton, a Walton College alumni and DAAC member, is the general manager of Coamesa, a consumer goods distributor with services throughout Central America. Leiton saw the program as an opportunity that would help his company, a student, and the Walton College, so he created a business development internship that Mollerup eventually landed. The experience worked so well that Leiton, who took part in weekly update meetings with Mollerup, is bringing a Walton College student to Costa Rica this summer as an intern.
While the Coamesa internship originated from a UA contact, it still took place through Academic Programs International (API), a service provider that helps universities with study abroad and international internships programs. For in-person experiences, companies like API typically place the students in the internships, but they also assist with visas, housing, transportation, and logistical support.
For the virtual internships, they set up virtual experiences and take care of check-ins that are part of an internship experience. For instance, the 10 Walton College students who did virtual internships in summer 2021 formed a cohort that met regularly to discuss their experiences. And when students successfully complete specific activities, they qualify for badges that verify their accomplishments. Mollerup said she improved her skills in several areas – business development, time management, cross-cultural collaboration, communication, technology, and leadership.
With travel restrictions loosened in some parts of the world, API and the UA hope to move forward with a mixture of offerings for students who are interested in international business experiences. But the virtual option is likely here to stay.
“They got creative,” Clay said. “All their business models were gone. Nobody was studying abroad because you couldn’t do it. Nobody was interning abroad because you couldn’t do it. So that’s just another story of a business figuring out a whole new way to do something. And it worked so well that they're going to keep that in their portfolio services.”