As a non-traditional co-op, the internship I took part in for my first co-op in Uganda was not as structured as those you might find in the US. I decided my working hours, chose how long I wanted to stay in which department, and picked the physicians I wanted to shadow. Although I emerged from my co-op relatively successful, there were several things I wish I knew or was told before my first day in the hospital.
Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. In my co-op, there was minimal guidance around the hospital from the local coordinator of the program I went through. I realized that I would have to find my way around during my time there, and no one was going to guide me throughout the duration of my co-op. During that time, I realized how important it was to ask questions. Everyone was extremely helpful and willing to answer them, no matter how embarrassing they were or how clueless I sounded asking them. In a new working environment, people actually appreciate that you want to learn about their system and ask questions in return, promoting an environment of information exchange.
Don’t judge. This sounds obvious, but it is difficult to maintain a completely objective view when standards are so different from what you’re used to. Especially coming from a first-world country like the US, a lot of us take things for granted and don’t realize how different situations are in other countries. Absorb as much as you can and do what you can to help, but don’t criticize the system that you are not a part of. Instead, observe, analyze, and come up with tentative solutions to problems you witness around your environment. What simple, sustainable solutions might there be to obstacles you see around your workplace?
Adapt. I cannot emphasize this point enough. In an area of high poverty and low development, I had to constantly reframe situations, recreating what is “normal” in my head. Although things might be overwhelming at first, try not to see giving up as an option. Worst comes to worst, you might not enjoy your co-op, but in the grand scheme of things, it is only four to six months of your life. Use this time to step out of your comfort zone, give yourself time to overcome culture shock, and document your time so that you have something to look back on.
An international co-op is an exciting and ambitious adventure to pursue, so cherish the time you have and the invaluable lessons you learn along the way. When you return from co-op, reflect on your growth, remember the things you’ve learned, and share your experience with others.