Best Country to Intern: The Netherlands
Like most recent graduates, a laundry list of extracurricular activities, awards, and work experience lines my resume. The interview-asking questions though don’t come from these however. They come from a research internship at a multinational reproductive justice organization that I did in the Netherlands. As part of my study abroad program, we were required to volunteer. Many of my friends stayed locally in Amsterdam and a few went to other cities like me.
Our cohort joked that, “unlike our peers, who remember their final months abroad as a time to travel and make memories, we combed over books and databases.” Although this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, I couldn’t help but appreciate the experience to intern in a country that wasn’t my own! To this day, the differences that I saw in the Dutch work environment shape what I expect of American internships and work.
As an American with little Dutch language skills, I feared that I would immediately be pushed aside for such menial tasks, but that was far from true!
Before starting my internship, I emailed my supervisors to learn more about the organization and to see how my interests matched their needs. I asked for them to pay for my for my round trip train rides from Amsterdam to Utrecht, assuming they’d say no. When they agreed, I was shocked and thrilled! As a social sciences and humanities student, I hardly ever came across internships that would provide any type of financial compensation. I chalked this act of kindness up to them feeling bad for me. But the more that I learned about Dutch work culture, the quicker I realized that that was not the case.
I lived with an amazing host family, a host mom, host sister, and student in my program, who was always willing to answer my questions and talk with me further about the Netherlands. After receiving the internship, I told my host family how shocked I was that the company agreed to compensate my train ride. My host mother and sister were taken aback by my reaction. They informed me that, in the Netherlands, it is common to do internships as part of a university program, so you either get credit or financial support for that time spent.
As an American student who could not receive credit for an internship back home, unless coupled with an independent study, and only received financial funding for one summer, I was pleased to hear about the economic support that Dutch corporations and universities provide their students with.
Not only did interning abroad change my economic expectations, but it also changed my perception of the workplace culture. Many American students joke that they spend their summer fetching coffee or filing documents. From my experience and from the stories I’ve heard from friends, this often isn’t a joke and leads to a sense of isolation for interns. As an American with little Dutch language skills, I feared that I would immediately be pushed aside for such menial tasks, but that was far from true!
Two supervisors greeted me with meaningful tasks and a strong sense of empowerment. This was the first time the company had ever had an intern, which again demonstrates the contrasts between the cultures, so we were all learning how to structure this role. Since both the company and I were entering new territory, we sat down right away to discuss what I would work on in the month that I was there. We established that I would develop a PowerPoint on the harms of child marriage, which would be used as information and for presentations in the company’s affiliates around the world.
Very rarely do interns get the opportunity to produce work that gets used to that magnitude. As an American in a Dutch work environment, I was even more shocked by this assignment. It showed me that the Netherlands has a strong sense of respect for people’s time and talents no matter what the field may be.
This respect stretches far beyond the workplace in the Netherlands however. As a former intern for small non-profits, it was expected to send texts and emails around the clock for various projects. I’ve found that even when you’re “off the clock,” your phone is always on and dinging for work projects. When I mentioned to my Dutch supervisors that I would work from home as well, they quickly informed me that it was completely unnecessary and that people in the office rarely do that!
I remember awkwardly navigating this situation for the first time. As I was checking in with a supervisor, he politely told me to check in with another colleague. Initially, I felt like a nuisance and a sense of resentment that he couldn’t help me before he left. Instead of frustration from his colleague, a common occurrence for American workers getting time off, the peer graciously helped me because they understood he had made a prior family obligation. (Later on, I found out that he was off to vacation and already running late.) In the United States, I often feel a work-before-family binary. That was non-existent in the Netherlands. It was shocking for a workaholic American like me, but slightly refreshing too!
When I mentioned to my Dutch supervisors that I would work from home as well, they quickly informed me that it was completely unnecessary and that people in the office rarely do that!
Although my experience remained positive, I do however have one regret- not learning more of the language. Maybe it was my frequent presence in the office or the fact that I could pass for Dutch (minus my short stature!), but many of the employees would immediately speak to me in Dutch at the coffee machine or while working at my desk. I took it as a sign of acceptance, but felt strange asking people to speak English with me.
When doing an internship abroad, I advise learning at least the basic phrases and words associated with your work. It not only helps you do more in that position and communicate with colleagues, but you learn more and shows your interest in the company.
Internees are told to engage in, write about, and reflect on their experiences to benefit fully. When interning abroad, your strengths and weaknesses come out to the fullest extent. I learned how to commute among cities using three modes of transportation–a bike, train, and walking. I learned that you can work in an office where you don’t know a single soul or the language and produce something meaningful. While studying abroad in the Netherlands, I learned that I was strong and capable enough to go outside of my comfort zone, which I advise everyone do.