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Society & Culture

5 Tips for Taking an International Co-op

October 28, 2019

“I’ve always been interested in China because it’s kind of like this place that everyone says is so different from any other country in the world and it’s so far away and it’s kind of like this unknown land,” said Sarah DiPasquale. Here she is at the Great Wall.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019–2020.

It’s hard to fathom going to China “on a whim,” but that’s exactly how Sarah DiPasquale describes her first trip to the Asian country.

And then she went back for round two.

Now a fifth-year global studies major with a concentration in justice and human rights, DiPasquale entered Drexel University with enough college credits to move right into her second year. That meant that she was unexpectedly able to do her first co-op during what was technically her first year on campus.

“All the deadlines were coming up and I knew going into college I wanted to go abroad,” she remembered. “Then, I heard about the Freeman Foundation.”

DiPasquale decided to take up the Foundation on its offer to qualifying Drexel students who are also U.S. citizens for funding to support international co-op experiences in East and Southeast Asia. That’s how DiPasquale found herself teaching English to school children in the Chinese city of Dalian for six months when she’d only spent the same, short amount of time as a full-time college student at Drexel.

“I’ve always been interested in China because it’s kind of like this place that everyone says is so different from any other country in the world and it’s so far away and it’s kind of like this unknown land,” she said. “I was just like, ‘Hey, might as well try it.’ So, I went.”

DiPasquale tried it and liked it so much that she went back for her second co-op a year later, this time working for a government organization that promotes international property law in order to see the business side of international relations.

After two international co-ops immersed in a culture much different than the one at home, DiPasquale has picked up some key insights that she shares as a Steinbright Peer Mentor. Here are five tips she’d share with any Drexel undergrads thinking about doing a co-op abroad:

Think outside the box

Sarah DiPasquale found herself teaching English to school children in the Chinese city of Dalian for six months.“I definitely think it’s important to visit these countries we don’t necessarily know a lot about or that aren’t really talked about,” DiPasquale said of her reasoning for co-oping in Southeast Asia as opposed to more popular study and work abroad destinations like Europe and Australia.

She would encourage all students considering an international co-op to think outside the box, and to get outside of their comfort zone, in terms of maximizing their experience. Who knows, this may be the only chance you have to spend six months working in a foreign country.

“I’m obviously in love with Europe — who isn’t — but Europe is so similar to America that you’re not necessarily getting these jaw-dropping experiences,” DiPasquale said. “For example, when you’re in China and somebody pushes you out of the way to get on the subway, that’s not rude there. People don’t say sorry or excuse me. We think that’s crazy, so when you go to China you’re like, ‘Oh my god, who is this person?’ But, then you just kind of have to realize that cultures are different, and people are raised differently.”

Although this may not sound like a pleasant encounter, DiPasquale said it’s important to “feel uncomfortable,” and get further away from Western ways, in order to also have experiences that are truly life changing!

You don’t have to know the language

DiPasquale is studying Arabic at Drexel with the hope of someday helping refugees in the Middle East, but despite this preparation, she actually went on her first co-op to China without knowing any Chinese at all.

“I learned a lot of basic words and phrases once I was there, especially the second time I was there, but I never took any courses in Chinese,” she said.

However, the fact that she could navigate and thrive in the foreign country without knowing much of the native tongue also made her realize her privilege.

“Every other country where English isn’t their first language, … their parents are bringing them to English classes, and it’s engrained in their head, ‘If you really want to make it with a really good job, you have to be able to speak English,’” she said.

For her second co-op, this time Sarah DiPasquale worked for a government organization that promotes international property law in order to see the business side of international relations.Prepare yourself for a different workplace environment

Even though you don’t necessarily have to know the language, DiPasquale said students entering a foreign workforce have to be ready to experience some differences.

For example, she said there’s a huge hierarchy within business in China that she experienced acutely during her second co-op, and all interactions are governed by this hierarchal structure.

“It’s not like in America, where your boss will stop in, they’ll say hi to you and you’ll give each other gifts for the holidays, you get coffee together, things like that, no matter what position you are in the office,” she said. “It was a bit offsetting, but at the same time, I thought it was important to understand. So that was a really good lesson that I learned from that co-op.”

Utilize all resources at your disposal

Students who have an interest in international co-op may still grapple with whether or not it is financially viable in their individual case. For DiPasquale who is financing her undergraduate education on her own, this was the question that led her to taking advantage of what the Freeman Foundation had to offer.

“Honestly, without the Freeman Scholarship, it probably wouldn’t have been feasible for me to live abroad for so long,” she said.

She would encourage all students to seek out financial resources, as well as human ones. Speak with an advisor at the Steinbright Career Development Center or with a peer mentor. There also may be affiliates to Drexel or otherwise that could help you feel more at home in a foreign place. For instance, DiPasquale had dinner with a Freeman Foundation representative from China.

“He really wanted my feedback about being a young professional in China,” she said. “It was actually really amazing how interested he was in my individual experience. … Obviously, it’s the least I can do after what this organization gave to me, just going to meet someone for dinner.” 

Sarah DiPasquale in Dalian, China.In the end, it could help differentiate you in the job market

You never know where decisions or networking experiences related to your co-ops could affect your future career. But it’s almost a given, according to DiPasquale, that having international work experience on your résumé upon graduation won’t be a detriment.

“[Hiring managers will] be like, ‘Wow, what were you doing there?” … That’s really going to spark people’s interest,” she said.

It’s these unique experiences and exposure that make an international co-op experience worthwhile, DiPasquale added, and will make you stand out from the student who chose to stay on campus.

“Maybe they made a lot more money with their co-ops because they stayed at home and they stayed with their friends and they were scared to go away,” she said. “But at the same time, after school, you really want to stand out, and I think that’s one of the easiest ways to do so, is to have this experience.”

The Steinbright Career Development Center is granted $200,000 annually by the Freeman Foundation to support up to 25 Drexel students who are U.S. citizens and have secured a co-op in East or Southeast Asia. Interested students can inquire with their co-op advisor about eligibility for this funding.

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.