Overseas internships are cause for excitement -- and caution

Summer officially begins in less than two weeks, but the summer semester has begun at many schools and students are preparing for internships overseas. It is truly a dream come true to have an internship lined up in an exotic locale such as Paris, Jerusalem, Amsterdam or Moscow. Travel does indeed broaden the mind as well as one's character; exposure to different languages, cuisine, and social customs are priceless experiences.

But in the post-9/11 world, overseas travel has taken on an irreversibly different tone. From being aware of airport security protocol to keeping abreast of current world events, it is every traveler's responsibility keep his or her eyes wide open and behave accordingly. And I'm not just referring to possible political strife or terrorist activity. According to the U.S. Department of State, over 2,500 U.S. citizens are arrested abroad annually, and about 50% of those are on narcotic charges. Perhaps surprisingly, the most common cause of death of U.S. citizens overseas -- besides natural causes -- is traffic accidents.
It's always a good idea to study up on the country in which you are planning to intern. Familiarize yourself with the laws, both local and national. Get an idea of what the local customs are as well; as a young student and guest, you'll automatically stand out, so figure out in advance what may help you blend in a bit.

Since you'll probably be on a pretty tight budget, it's also a good idea get a handle on whatever public transportation system may exist. Obtain rail and bus schedules as soon as possible, and see if appropriate passes can purchased when you arrive. Many countries have special passes available for tourists.

I'd be remiss, and unrealistic, if I didn't address the issue of partying while abroad. As previously mentioned, drug offenses constitute about half of all overseas arrests. The last thing you need while holding an internship is to get busted for something which is not only avoidable but out and out stupid. Exercise some common sense in this area. This isn't a judgment on recreational activities, but rather a practical consideration: Don't engage in anything illegal. And even if you're simply imbibing legal pints of ale in London or iced shooters of vodka in Oslo, limit your intake. And under no circumstances leave a drink unattended: the date rape drug rohypnol is endemic in many parts of the world, and you will be a stranger in a strange land. Don't put yourself in a situation where you're vulnerable and away from friends, family, and the laws of your homeland.

As far as a potentially hostile political climate may affect your safety, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs offers online, up-to-date alerts by country. For example, as of April 13, 2010, Ethiopia is recommended for essential travel only in light of the recent national parliamentary elections. (The alert expires on July 1, 2010.) The State Department advised all U.S. citizens to avoid traveling in Malaysia due to threats against foreigners, beginning last January. That alert expires on June 16, 2010.

When you arrive at your destination, it's also an excellent idea to register with the nearest embassy or consulate of your country of origin. In the rare event something untoward occurs, these are the people who you'll need to turn to immediately. You may want to give them a color copy of your passport, too; your passport while overseas can be your only real material asset. Lose your money, lose your keys, your clothes--no matter. If you loose your passport, you should seek immediate help from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. (And don't be tempted by anyone offering you large cash sums for your passport; it's not only illegal, but it could potentially land in the hands of some very bad people.)

This isn't meant to frighten, only to enlighten. Chances are you'll have no problems while in another country, but the world is a complicated place, and it gets more so as time goes on. Common sense goes a long way. Also, by behaving and abiding by the laws of whatever country your interning in, you project a positive image of your country of origin. If more people took the time and consideration to be good guests, the world would be an easier place in which to travel and learn.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.
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