Creating an Academic Framework for International Internships


According to the 2015 Institute for International Education Open Doors report, 19,000 students participated in for-credit international internships, while another 22,181 students reported participating in "non-credit work, internships, and volunteering abroad". As the number of students taking part in experiential education abroad continues to rise, it has become imperative that we establish best practices for the administration and assessment of these types of programs.

In speaking with international education administrators, faculty, and program providers from different universities and organizations, it is clear that there is much variation between institutions as it pertains to international internships. Fundamentally, what sets an internship apart from other work experiences is the connection to a student's academics. According to the National Association of College and Employers (NACE),

"An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent."

This emphasis on practical application of classroom knowledge brings to the forefront the need to create an academic framework around international internships. The NAFSA WIVRA subcommittee has established the following parameters and considerations as a resource to colleagues responsible for the oversight of international internship programs. Further, the WIVRA subcommittee has been working to identify different models and best practices to share with the NAFSA community so you can draw from those examples which work best for your institution. 

Academic Frameworks and Learning Goals

"Academic frameworks" refers to the curricular and co-curricular mechanisms that help us structure, facilitate, and assess the learning that takes place through experiential education such as international internships. These may include: a credit-bearing internship course; complementary courses taken alongside the internship; pre/post programming, workshops, and courses; and assessment methods. Your institution's specific framework will vary depending on the structure of your internship programs, your intended outcomes for your students, and the resources available to you.

International internship programs, regardless of their structure, should have clearly defined learning goals. Ideally, the learning goals will incorporate aspects of the following three themes:

  • Academic/Discipline-specific
  • Professional Development
  • Interpersonal/Intercultural

International internship programs should have learning goals that differentiate them from domestic internships. After all, if they are going to have the same learning goals as a domestically based program then it is no longer an "international" internship, but an internship experience that happened internationally. Therefore, special attention should be placed on intercultural preparation and exploration throughout the internship cycle.

Key Considerations

Each institution will need to determine the most appropriate academic framework for their international internship program based on a variety of factors. Following are a few key considerations that will help guide an institution in establishing their preferred model.

Primary Stakeholders

It is important to recognize the multiple stakeholders who influence and/or are influenced by international internship programs. Depending on the exact structure of an international internship program, these stakeholders may include:

  • Students
  • University academic departments / Faculty
  • Providers
  • International Education Administrators
  • Career Services Professionals
  • Employers / Supervisors
  • Local Hosts / Local Communities

Each party's needs, perspectives, and contributions to the experience will ideally be considered when designing an academic framework. For instance, should a student's learning objectives factor into recruiting and hiring? To what extent do we involve the local host and community into our assessment of student learning outcomes? How can faculty, administrators, and program providers work together to design and deliver a meaningful experiential education program?

Credit or No Credit

Whether or not an institution grants credit for internships is a principle factor in the design of an academic framework. When credit is given, there is inherently more academic oversight of the experience and more formal opportunity for learning interventions. Still, depending on which department issues the credit, who is involved in the course delivery and assessment, and how many credits a student may earn, there are many possible variations in terms of learning outcomes, course content, and related assignments.

If no credit is granted, it becomes more challenging, although still feasible, to introduce an academic framework. At some institutions, students receive recognition on their transcripts after having completed an experiential education program such as an internship, they may apply the internship to a co-op designation, minor, or degree program, or they may receive funding and/or other types of the home institution to still require certain assignments or assessments, despite the fact that no academic credit is being awarded.

Institutional Model

It bears mentioning that the administration of international internships can be run by a variety of campus departments across institutions - the career services office, the internship or experiential education office, the study abroad office, or a specific academic department or college. Which department(s) oversee the international internship program(s) may impact the academic framework developed for the program(s). For instance, an international program housed within a specific academic unit may structure their curriculum and assessments are the discipline, whereas an international internship program housed within a study abroad office may focus more on intercultural development. Internship programs run out of an academic department may also have more organic connections with faculty members who can contribute to the academic component of the experience. Additionally, at some large universities, there may be multiple international internship program is centralized or decentralized, and whether any higher level coordination exists within a decentralized model, will ultimately impact the development of an academic framework. There are benefits and challenges associated with all of these scenarios. It is most likely out of the control of the individual international internship coordinator which model their institution adheres to. It is more important that the administrators be aware of the institutional environment in which they are operating, and to determine what is possible within their specific situation.

Curriculum Design

As alluded to throughout this document, there is no "one size fits all" model. Rather, institutions will need to consider their individual situation to arrive at the best model for their international internship program. Institution offer a variety of academic frameworks for international internships, ranging from co-curricular (no credit) with access to online resources to an on-site local course developed specifically for the program and cohort for which the experience serves as a supplement (or 'laboratory' of sorts). Examples that fall between those two points on a continuum include the following: 

  • Co-curricular (no credit) with access to online resources
  • Pre/post course (for credit) - examples: Georgia Tech, University of Michigan
  • Pre/post workshop or seminar (not for credit) - examples: Georgia Tech
  • Online coursework alongside the experience
  • Independent study with faculty on campus
  • Local tutor or coach to meet individually during the internship
  • Assimilation into a local class that may be tangentially related to the experience
  • On-site local course developed specifically for the program
Options institutions consider when developing academic framework delivery include: individual or cohort-based; on-campus or local; online or in person; and existing or customized. A university may create these curricula in-house, or partner with a third party internship provider. Many internship providers offer expertise in career development and assessment models which may then be customized to meet the needs of a specific partnering university.

Three overarching factors that influence which academic framework is best for a specific program are:

  • Country where experience is taking place: local regulations, work culture, language requirements, labor market trends, and cross-cultural context.
  • Curriculum to which the experience will be linked: timing within coursework, whether academic credit can be applied to major/minor, and impact on degree completion.
  • Cost of student undertaking the program: length of time in country; access to financial aid; availability of funding to support, and any additional fees or tuition required.


As stated previously, there are three primary areas of learning that we want our students to experience through an international internship: Interpersonal/Intercultural; Academic/Discipline-specific; and Professional Development. If we are to adequately assess student growth and the overall impact of international internship programs, it is important that curriculum be developed to measure where students stand on each of these three key areas before, during, and after their experiences. In order to do this effectively, a combination of assessment tools should be implemented to comprehensively address each of the areas. For credit internships may be awarded grades, but we need to look beyond a grade in order to see and evaluate holistic growth.

A formal assessment, such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), Global Perspectives Inventory (GPI), or the Beliefs, Events, and Values Inventory (BEVI) are all excellent pre/post tools to measure students' growth in the areas of interpersonal/intercultural development. Depending on the students' discipline, a separate formal assessment could be implemented to assess their growth as it relates specifically to that particular academic field.

Beyond these more objective assessments, it is important that the students also learn to look inwards and be asked to reflect upon their personal and professional growth by responding to specific prompts at each stage of the process whether this be writing or by orally reflecting amongst their fellow peers. Students may also be asked to produce a final work report, poster, blog, journal, or other deliverable at the end of the internship to reflect on their learning.

Faculty play an instrumental role in facilitating reflective conversations and helping students make connections between what they've experienced abroad and how that relates to their academic, professional, and interpersonal development. Introducing this practice of self-assessment as a part of the experience is a skill/habit that will help them build a strong foundation for personal and professional growth later on in life.

Finally, in order to obtain a more objective, professional assessment, students should be given feedback on their performance and engagement from a supervisor present at each stage of the experience who can give them more insight on their professional growth during the experience as it compares to others in the field.

Longitudinal studies of graduating students and/or alumni on the continued impact of an international internship on one's career preparedness and trajectory may yield compelling results which can inform future academic frameworks. To this end, it is suggested that international internship administrators partner with their university's assessment office to draw from and/or participate in other institutional surveys. These broad-reaching and often multifaceted institutional surveys are likely to provide rich data that can provide a deeper and cross-cutting look at the impact of an international internship on various aspects of a student's education and career path.

Best Practices, Sample Models, and Knowledge Gaps 

The WIVRA subcommittee is compiling sample resources to share with the NAFSA community. There are many syllabi and associated assignments for credit-bearing internships, as well as syllabi and assignments for courses taken alongside internships and service-learning programs. We also have examples of supporting programming and courses that are offered before and after the experience itself. These examples comes from universities and program providers. In terms of industry standards, there are resources available through NAFSA, the Forum on Education Abroad, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education, and NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) that help us ensure that we are offering quality academic experiences.

Despite these resources, we have identified some gaps. We have noticed that much of the coursework associated with internships in particular focuses on culture learning, foreign language learning, and to some extent, the development of professional skills. However, we have not seen many examples of courses or related programming that tie the internship experience to the student’s academic discipline. Additionally, we have not found many resources addressing how students self-direct their own learning during these experiences. Finally, there is a lack of learning outcomes and associated assessment instruments that focus specifically on overseas internships, and, a dearth of academic research on this topic in general.

Suggested Resources 

NAFSA Education Abroad Knowledge Community’s (EA KC) Subcommittee on Work, Internships, Volunteer and Research Abroad (WIVRA)

WIVRA Advising Document for Students

WIVRA NAFSA Website Resource Page

Nolting, W., Donohue, D., Matherly, C. & Tillman, M. (2013). Internships, Service Learning, and Volunteering Abroad: Successful Models and Best Practices. Washington, DC: NAFSA.

Career Integration with Study Abroad: University of Minnesota

CAS: Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education

Forum on Education Abroad Guidelines for Credit and Non-Credit Volunteer, Internship Experience and Work  (VIEW) Programs Abroad (2013).

Global Internship Conference

NACE: National Association of Colleges and Employers

NCDA: National Career Development Association