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Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 690–711, 2008 0160-7383/$ - see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Printed in Great Britain



The Overseas Internship

Erik van ‘t Klooster Jeroen van Wijk Frank Go Johan van Rekom

Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Abstract: An important objective of educational travel programs is to teach students how to bridge cultural distance. Research remains inconclusive to what extent and under what cir- cumstances students actually learn from educational travel experiences. This paper examines the influence of cultural distance on the perceived learning effects of the overseas internship, specifically cross-cultural competencies and management skills. It is shown that asymmetric cultural distance and psychic distance have a negative relationship with the perceived learn- ing of management skills and interaction with locals. Students traveling to low-income coun- tries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in particular tend to face difficulties. Keywords:

educational travel, cultural distance, overseas internship, management skills, cross-cultural competencies. 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Whilst information and communication technologies connect peo- ple at different ends of the globe for sharing knowledge, this develop- ment has not stopped people from traveling (Go and van Fenema 2006 ). On the contrary, the entire world seems to be on the move:

tourists, business(wo)men, international students, expatriates, emi- grants, refugees, and many others. The scale and scope of traveling has increased dramatically over the past century. ‘‘Internationally there are over 700 million legal passengers arrivals each year (compared with 25 million in 1950) with a predicted 1 billion by 2010’’ ( Sheller and Urry 2006:207 ). From a sociological point of view, international business is an important driver of interaction between societies around the world. Historically these societies have developed different cultures, consist- ing of shared behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols, to deal with the problems of external adaptation and internal integration (Schneider

The authors are affiliated with the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Erik van ‘t Klooster (e-mail<>) is Ph.D candidate at the Centre for Tourism Management. Jeroen van Wijk is assistant professor of Business-Society Management. Frank Go serves as professor of Tourism Marketing and director of the Centre for Tourism Management. Johan van Rekom is assistant professor of Marketing.


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and Barsoux 1997 ). An important determinant for cultural diversity around the world is the difference in economic development. Although cultural change is path dependent on broad cultural heri- tage, economic development triggers a shift in norms and values. Ingle- hart and Baker (2000) have shown that cultural values shift from ‘traditional’ to ‘secular’ when the economy develops from an agrarian into an industrial society. Traditional values, linked to pre-industrial societies include relatively low levels of tolerance for abortion, divorce, and homosexuality, tend to emphasize male dominance in economic and political life, deference to parental authority, and the importance of family life, and are relatively authoritarian; most of them place strong emphasis on religion. When the economy develops further into a post-industrial society, cultural values shift further from survival to self-expression which embraces general trust, tolerance, subjective well-being, and political activism. Multinational companies have to cope with many cross-cultural issues that arise from the multiculturalism of their staff. Although corporate culture, rules and regulations provide employees with a sense of com- mon understanding, project outcomes can be severely affected by the lack of skills to deal with culture-related misunderstanding ( Schneider and Barsoux 1997 ). A lack of insight in the diversity of values and demeanors among employees can bring about interpersonal distrust and slow down the coordination of tasks ( Hambrick, Davidson, Snell and Snow 1998 ). Such insights hold important lessons for mobile knowledge workers. They must not only learn how to interact with peo- ple from other cultures but also understand how culture impacts on management within organizations. From a network perspective, corporate scandals and the increased capacity of both consumers and civil society organizations to target cor- porate reputation have induced international managers to enter into strategic dialogues with stakeholders to build a common ground for fu- ture actions ( van Tulder and van der Zwart 2006 ). This requires man- agers to be able to cope with uncertainty, communicate effectively and understand widely different perceptions on values, economics, politics, and society. Managers acquire these competencies partly while study- ing from social institutions or media images, but direct cultural expe- rience in the market is key ( Burns, Myers and Kakabadse 1995; Zaidman 2000 ). For this reason, educational institutions, companies, government, non-profits and intermediaries have been supporting students to en- hance their cross-cultural competencies by traveling abroad. Whereas the tourism industry is still ‘‘unaware of the true size of this market seg- ment’’ ( Ritchie, Carr and Cooper 2003: 1 ), worldwide, more than 1.5 million students studied abroad in 2003 and their number is growing ( UNESCO 2004 ). AIESEC, the world’s largest overseas internship inter- mediary, reports an impressive growth: from 1000 international intern- ships in 1998 to 4342 in 2005 (AIESEC, personal communication). The actual learning effects of educational travel are under-researched, how- ever. Only a few empirical studies have examined the actual learning effects and their antecedents ( Litvin 2003 ). This paper therefore seeks

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to address this knowledge gap by focusing on the influence of cultural distance on learning effects of overseas internships.


By combining studying and traveling, present-day students follow an age-old trajectory. Early biblical references speak of traveling scholars, and cross-cultural education can be traced back to the reign of Asoka the Great of India, which occurred in the second century BC, and the establishment of the University of Taxila in what now is Pakistan (Ward, Bochner and Furnham 2001 ). In Europe, between the six- teenth and eighteenth centuries, scholars and artists travelled to meet influential peers and experience other cultures (Maczak 1995 ). Also, the European upper-classes sent their sons on the Grand Tour to major cities as part of their educational scheme ( Brodsky-Porges 1981; Town- er 1985 ). Nowadays, students can opt for different forms of educational travel, ranging from field trips, exchanges, international research pro- jects and international internships. The cross-cultural learning poten- tial of these forms of travel depends on the context. Pizam, Milman and Jafari (1991) mention three factors which enhance cross-cultural learning: interaction with local people, equal status between host and guest, and the shock of crossing cultural borders. Significant learn- ing can only exist when unlearning takes place, which often happens when one experiences severe or long periods of what Hottola (2004) calls ‘culture confusion’, the mental confusion resulting from differ- ences in values, behaviour, political perceptions, and ecology. When educational travel participants primarily engage in escorted bus tours or familiar social networks they hardly escape from their cultural ‘bub- ble’ and they might learn only little ( Pizam 1996 ). However, the over- seas internship is a form of educational travel that holds more potential for cross-cultural learning. An internship is a student’s closely monitored, paid or unpaid work experience at a corporation or non-profit organization. Such an expe- rience offers students opportunities for socializing into the manage- ment profession and tackling ‘‘real world’’ challenges which organizations face. Overseas internships have the additional advantage of enabling students to live and work side-by-side with people of the host country, and to get to know values, customs, and worldviews in other regions of the world (van Wijk, Go, van ‘t Klooster forthcoming ). Interns typically operate on an independent basis in a real work envi- ronment. From a business perspective the student gains insight in the practice of international marketing, in terms of institutional differ- ences, economic performance and consumer behavior (Toncar and Cudmore 2000 ). Of course, the overseas internship also offers students an exotic tourist experience in which they can realize their need for recreation or diversion. Finally, it provides students, what Cohen (1979) called a peek into the ‘back’ regions of the host society thereby facilitating experiential, experimental or even existential modes of tourist experiences. Empirical research on the precise effects of over-

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seas internships is lacking ( Feldman, Folks and Turnley 1998 ), but a recent study indicates that overseas internships produce better learn- ing outcomes than study exchanges and national internships in terms of foreign language skills, cultural empathy, self-efficacy and intercul- tural competencies ( Stronkhorst 2005 ).

Learning Effects

The assumption that travel results in more cross-cultural understand- ing is rooted in social contact theory. In studying inter-racial relations, social psychologists find that inter-group contacts, i.e. face-to-face inter- action between members of clearly different groups, reduce prejudices, although not under all conditions (Pettigrew 1998 ). Carlson and Wid- aman (1988) found that studying and living abroad leads to height- ened levels of international understanding. Their research involved over 800 American college students of which 304 studied abroad at a European university during their junior year, while 519 remained on the campus. The study abroad group showed higher levels of interna- tional political concern, cross-cultural interest, and cultural cosmopol- itanism than those who did not. Similarly, Hansel (1988) compared cross-cultural learning between AFS exchange students and students who stayed at home. The research shows that AFS exchange students learned more about the host country and other cultures; became more aware of international issues and gained more appreciation of foreign language ability. The exchange students also appeared to become less materialistic, more adaptable, more independent in their thinking, more aware of their home country and culture, and better able to com- municate with others. A study by Stitsworth (1988) found that American teenage students who participated in a one-month home-stay program in Japan became more independent, flexible, and open towards unconventional ways of living. The learning effects were in particular significant for those who had no previous travel abroad experience, didn’t study a foreign lan- guage or whose family didn’t have travel abroad experience. However, not all research on educational travel outcomes share these positive results. A literature review on tourism and understanding ( Litvin 2000, 2003 ) shows that researchers report widely different effects of tourist contact on intercultural understanding. Some find minor positive changes in attitudes, some none at all and others even find negative changes. For example, Var, Schlutter, Ankomah and Lee (1989) found no significant differences between students with tourism work experience and those without, with regard to the perceived im- pact of tourism on economics, physical environment, social environ- ment, and cross-cultural understanding. Similarly, Gmelch (1997) followed 51 American students who travelled through Europe in 1993, and found little impact on their cognitive development, i.e. the acquisition of knowledge about European cultures. If positive atti- tudinal changes are found this could mean that cultural awareness is increased but such a single dimensional approach doesn’t necessarily

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imply cross-cultural understanding (Schuster, Zimmerman, Schertzer and Beamish 1998 ). The transitional experience encompasses a movement from a state of low self- and cultural awareness to a state of high self- and cultural awareness and the development of competencies to deal with the new environment ( Adler 1975 ). In the main, students learn two types of competencies during an overseas internship: cross-cultural compe- tencies and management skills. Cross-cultural competencies can be de- fined as ‘‘the individual’s effectiveness in drawing upon a set of knowledge, skills, and personal attributes in order to work successfully with people from different national cultural backgrounds at home or abroad’’ (Johnson, Lenartowicz and Apud 2006:6 ). Black and Menden- hall (1990) offer a taxonomy of cross-cultural competencies, along three dimensions: self-maintenance, relationship and perceptual. The self-maintenance dimension refers to the capability of substituting sources of reinforcement in order to manage stress and deal with obsta- cles, and the readiness and confidence for such self-management. Such stress is not only caused by differences in social institutions and values. Street life scenes depicting extremely poor, sick or disabled people may cause a shock, especially to interns from Western societies who are nor- mally shielded from direct exposure to the less desirable facts of hu- man life by social security and state institutions (Hottola 2004 ). Ecological conditions may also require time to cope with, for example, exposure to significant differences in temperature, humidity, height and air pollution. Second, the cross-cultural relationship dimension in- volves the willingness and capability to foster and maintain interper- sonal relationships with members of a host culture, and to effectively deal with diverse communication styles, social customs, and the feel- ings of another person. Finally, the perceptual dimension concerns the mental capacity to interpret and understand the behavior of cultur- ally different others (Black and Mendenhall 1990 ). Leiba-O’Sullivan (1999) added a distinction between stable, i.e. untrainable and dy- namic or trainable competencies. The present paper focuses on the latter. Next to acquiring new competencies, the main reason for business students to opt for an internship is the learning of management skills. Of increasing importance to managers is the mastering of refined com- munication skills (Whetten, Cameron and Woods 2000 ) and ‘‘tacit interactions’’ (Beardsley, Johnson and Manyika 2006 ). The latter is characterized by a complex, uncertain transfer of tacit knowledge, com- plicated by differences in experience, beliefs, context, and skills. The sense of urgency for current and future knowledge workers to put more emphasis on developing refined communication and tacit knowledge skills is twofold. First of all, tacit interactions are becoming more valu- able as a source of competitiveness as transactions are increasingly dealt with by ICT. Second, global migration patterns increase cultural diver- sity in local spaces ( Go & Van Fenema 2006 ). Whetten et al (2000) distinguish between three types of management skills: Intrapersonal skills (developing self-awareness, time management skills and problem solving skills); Interpersonal skills (verbal communication; motivation

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and work performance and conflict management); People manage- ment (empowerment and delegation).

Cultural Distance

The phenomenon of culture can be approached from three domi- nant perspectives: postmodernist, particularist and dimensionalist. The latter is often used by social scientists given their practical dimen- sional frameworks. The leading figures of the dimensionalist perspec- tive are Hofstede, Triandis, Schwartz and Inglehart ( Vinken, Soeters and Ester 2004 ). They explain cultural variation across the world along a set of ultimate value dimensions. The dimensions enabled the mea- suring of differences in cultural values and led to the introduction of the concept of cultural distance ( Babiker, Cox and Miller 1980 ), de- fined as the extent to which national cultures differ from the hosts’ cul- tures. Cultural distance has often been measured in the form of an index compiled by Kogut and Singh (1988) from Hofstede’s cultural dimensions ( Shenkar 2001 ). Hofstede used a factor analysis to classify data from IBM work value survey among 40 countries along four dimensions: power distance, individualism, masculinity and uncer- tainty reduction. Power distance is defined as ‘the extent to which a society accepts the fact that power in institutions and organizations is distributed unequally’. Individualism can be defined as to what extent relationships between individuals in a society are loose. On the other hand, collectivism is the degree to which individuals are integrated into

groups. Masculinity is defined as ‘the extent to which the dominant val- ues in society are ‘‘masculine’’ – that is, assertiveness, the acquisition of money and things, and not caring for others, the quality of life, or peo- ple’. Uncertainty avoidance is defined as ‘the extent to which a society feels threatened by uncertain and ambiguous situations and tries to avoid these situations by providing greater career stability, establishing more formal rules, not tolerating deviant ideas and behaviors, and believing in absolute truths and the attainment of expertise’ (Hofstede

2003 ).

Mathematically, the Kogut and Singh index is calculated as follows:


CD ¼ X


i ¼ 1

I ihost I i hom e Þ 2 = V i g = 4

CD = cultural distance I ihost = index of the ith cultural dimension and the host country I ihome = index of the ith cultural dimension and the home country V i = variance of the index of the ith dimension

On the individual level, it is theoretically assumed that cultural distance has a negative relationship with the development of cross-cultural competencies ( Johnson et al 2006; Ward et al 2001 ).

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Great differences in cultural values, language, economic, political and legal systems may constitute a barrier to effectively communicate with people from the host country and learn significant management skills. This leads us to hypothesize the following:

Hypothesis 1. Cultural distance is negatively related to the perceived learning of man- agement skills.

Hypothesis 2. Cultural distance is negatively related to the perceived learning of cross- cultural competences.

Lately, the measuring of cultural distance by the Kogut & Singh for- mula has been criticized (see e.g. Chirkov, Lynch and Niwa 2005; Magala 2006; Shenkar 2001 ). One of the critiques is the illusion of sym- metry that the metaphor of distance creates. For example, a study by Selmer, Chiu and Shenkar (2006) found that German expatriates were better adjusted to the USA than American expatriates in Germany. In the context of the overseas internship it is unlikely that, for example, a Danish student interning in Vietnam will experience the same kind of cultural distance as his Vietnamese counterpart interning in Denmark, due to the increase in power distance in the first case and a decrease in the second case. Research by Feldman et al (1998) on overseas internship job factors showed that job autonomy and access to senior colleagues are posi- tively related to work performance and socialization in the group. Tak- ing into account these conditions, our asymmetry thesis is that interns will learn fewer management skills when they work in host societies with higher power distance, more uncertainty avoidance and ones which are more masculine. We also assume that students operating in more individualistic societies tend to have more decision power and are given more opportunities for learning, rendering them more capable of absorbing management skills. With regard to cross-cultural competences, we expect that interaction between interns and locals will be more difficult when they work in societies where power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity are higher then they are used to. A higher level of individualism is expected to foster open interac- tion between people from different backgrounds, which enables in- terns to learn more cross-cultural competencies.

Hypothesis 3. Power distance increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of management skills.

Hypothesis 4. Individualism increase is positively related to the perceived learning of management skills.

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Hypothesis 5. Masculinity increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of management skills.

Hypothesis 6. Uncertainty avoidance increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of management skills.

Hypothesis 7. Power distance increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of cross-cultural competencies.

Hypothesis 8. Individualism increase is positively related to the perceived learning of cross-cultural competencies.

Hypothesis 9. Masculinity increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of cross-cultural competencies.

Hypothesis 10. Uncertainty avoidance increase is negatively related to the perceived learning of cross-cultural competencies.

Another weakness of the cultural distance concept is the suggestion of cultural homogeneity in a country. It implies an attitude, which underestimates the potential differences between ethnic, regional or social groups ( Chirkov et al 2005; Kirkman, Lowe and Gibson 2006 ). Hofstede has also warned against applying country level cultural values at the individual level (Hofstede 2003 ). Still, many studies have used the dimensional model at the individual level. Since this approach has produced contradictory results, it has been argued that researchers should apply models that recognize the characteristics of specific pop- ulations in a country (Kirkman et al 2006 ). It is more likely that differ- ences between countries stem from individuals’ perceptions of a foreign country’s general values and attitudes, often referred to as psy- chic distance. Psychic distance is defined as ‘‘the distance between the home market and a foreign market resulting from the perception and understanding of cultural and business differences’’ ( Evans, Treadgold and Mavondo 2000:377 ). In this paper, psychic distance is measured by using the dimensional value model of Inglehart & Baker (2000), as this model is more dynamic and more general than the relatively static work-sphere related Hofstede dimensions (Vinken et al 2004 ). Follow- ing these observations two hypotheses can be added:

Hypothesis 11. Psychic distance is negatively related to the perceived learning of manage- ment skills.

698 E. van ‘t Klooster et al. / Annals of Tourism Research 35 (2008) 690–711

Hypothesis 12. Psychic distance is negatively related to the perceived learning of cross- cultural competences.

In summary, our hypotheses are presented in Figure 1 .

Study Methods

Empirical data was gathered through an online survey at the AIESEC website among 3000 alumni in the period June-August 2005 from all around the world. The survey was pre-tested by 12 respondents. A total of 1280 responses were returned of which 967 were completed suffi- ciently in order to be used to answer questions related to our cultural distance hypotheses. Our sample consisted of 501 female and 466 males, who fulfilled their internship in the period 1996-2005. With regard to the types of organizations that interns worked for, companies accounted for 70.5 per cent. The remaining existed of educational institutes (11.2%), gov- ernment institutions (3.1%) and NGOs (15.2%). Forty per cent of our sample comes from one of the following home countries: Germany (115), Poland (73), United States (57), Netherlands (56), Colombia (32), Canada (31), Romania (30), Mexico (29), Czech Republic (28), Turkey (27), India (27), Brazil (26), Finland (21), and Australia (20). Similarly, forty per cent of our population resided in one of the following internship countries: India (174), Germany (85), Poland (62), Turkey (55), United States (35), Czech Republic (25), Nether- lands (24), Italy (21) and Canada (19), Brazil (18), Hungary (18), Japan (16), Colombia (16), and Ukraine (16). We developed our own survey questions for the measurement of the perceived learning effects, based on the work of Whetten et al (2000), Leiba-O’Sullivan (1999) and Hottola (2004), using a seven- point scale (van Herk, Poortinga and Verhallen 2004 ). Cultural distance asymme- try was measured by subtracting the home country Hofstede values from the host-country Hofstede values, for each dimension. The psy-

- Cultural distance - Pdi increase + Learning effects Idv increase 1. Cross cultural -
Cultural distance
Pdi increase
Learning effects
Idv increase
1. Cross cultural
Mas increase
2. Management skills
Uai increase
Psychic distance

Figure 1. Conceptual model

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chic distance questions were selected from the 1999-2002 world values survey that refer to the ten items that tap the traditional versus secular- rational dimension and the survival versus self-expression dimension ( Inglehart and Baker 2000:24 ). The items in the traditional versus sec- ular-rational dimension measure the value perceptions of the impor- tance of god, child upbringing, abortion, national pride, and respect for authority. The items in the survival versus self-expression dimen- sion measures the value perceptions of job factors, happiness, willing- ness to sign a petition, homosexuality and trusting people. At the end of the survey we asked students to optionally fill out a box in which they could write down comments. The specific question was: ‘‘Please feel free to write down additional comments and recommendations with re- gard to your internship experience’’. In mathematical terms psychic distance was operationalized accord- ing to the Kogut and Singh index. Two of Inglehart & Baker’s cultural dimension items were measured with multiple questions, namely ‘‘qual- ities that children can be encouraged to learn at home’’ (child upbring- ing) and ‘‘aspects of a job that people say are important’’ (job factors). The alpha’s for ‘‘qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home’’ were 0.81 (home) and 0.68 (host). The alpha’s for ‘‘aspects of a job that people say are important’’ were 0.78 (home) and 0.83 (host). In order to make our psychic distance findings more concrete we examined what specific travel trajectories produced high psychic dis- tance. Following Inglehart and Baker’s thesis that cultural value are linked to economic development we used World Bank data to cluster our data in four economic zones: low-income economies (LIC), $825 GNI per capita or less; lower-middle-income economies (LMC), $826–3,255; upper-middle-income economies (UMC), $3,256–10,065; and high-income economies, $10,066 or more ( World Bank 2005:

291 ). In our sample low-income economies include Afghanistan, Ban- gladesh, Cameroon, Cote D-Ivoire, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Tan- zania, Togo and Uganda. Lower-middle-income economies include Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Domin- ican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. Upper-middle-income economies include Argentina, Botswana, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hun- gary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and Venezuela. High income countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Ger- many, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slove- nia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, United States, United Arab Emirates.


Although this study lacks a control group, the perceived learning effects seem to confirm previous theoretical arguments and empirical


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Table 1. Perceived learning of management skills and cross cultural competencies

Management skills (N = 967)


Mean a




The internship taught me about the study discipline that I specialize in. The internship increased my self- awareness. The internship increased my time management skills. The internship increased my problem solving skills. The internship increased my verbal communication skills with co-workers. The internship taught me how to motivate myself. The internship taught me how to motivate other co-workers. The internship taught me to delegate tasks to co-workers.

Cross cultural competencies (N = 949) During my internship I learned much more about the formal socio-economic and political institutions of the host country. Towards the end of the internship I had adjusted quite well to the street life of my host country. Towards the end of the internship I had become sufficiently adjusted to the ecological conditions (temperature, humidity, pollution) of the host country. Towards the end of my internship I felt I had adjusted to the different communication style of my colleagues Toward the end of my internship I was able to apply local conflict-resolution strategies. Towards the end of my internship the difference in language still seriously hindered my performance in my internship organization. Towards the end of my internship I managed to communicate with local people in a satisfactory way. Towards the end of the internship, I understood the dominant view in the host country on international political controversies. During my internship I have begun to love
















People management



People management



People management






























my host country. I want to visit my host country again. Perceptual



a 1 = Totally disagree; 7 = Totally agree.

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evidence ( Table 1 ). With regard to the self-maintenance dimension of cross-cultural competencies, students agree fully on adjusting to the street life and ecological conditions. They also say that they learned considerably more about the socio-economic and political institutions in the host country. Looking at the relationship dimension, students felt that they communicated in a satisfactory way with colleagues at work and local people. However, the students agreed less upon over- coming language differences and the learning of conflict-resolution skills. With regard to the perceptual dimension, respondents came to understand the dominant views of the host country on international political controversies. Also, in retrospect they talk affectionately about their host country and express a longing to visit their host country again. The learning of intrapersonal, interpersonal and people manage- ment skills are on the whole less pronounced than the cross-cultural competences ( Table 1 ). The interns are moderately positive in terms of the management skills that they learned during their internship abroad. They felt it taught them relatively little about their study disci- pline. With regard to the intrapersonal management skills, they in par- ticular increased their self awareness, learned to solve problems, but learned only little time management skills. Interns improved their ver- bal communication skills with co-workers. The neutral scores for moti- vating co-workers and delegation of tasks to co-workers suggest that students do relatively independent jobs in which few leadership quali- ties need to be used. With regard to the cultural distance hypotheses, no relationship was found between Kogut and Singh’s cultural distance construct and either management skills or cross-cultural competencies ( Tables 2 and 3 ). Hypotheses 1 and 2 are rejected. Based on our theoretical argu- ment, measuring the effect of cultural distance asymmetry should pro- vide more meaningful results. We looked at how an increase/decrease in Hofstede dimensions affected the learning of management skills or cross-cultural competencies (Tables 2 and 3 ). In particular, an increase in power distance and individualism produced significant effects. For management skills, power distance increase negatively affected study discipline, time management skills, problem-solving, verbal communi- cation, self motivation and motivating others. Individualism increase

Table 2. Pearson correlation coefficients among cultural distance and perceived management skills (N = 967)































,148 **






,143 **













.223 **


.333 **

.172 **

.181 ** .187 ** .057 .097 **

.157 ** .191 **


.097 ** .141 **




.210 **


.302 **

.145 **


.183 **













.074 *



.070 *



.120 **


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Table 3. Pearson correlation coefficients among cultural distance and perceived cross cultural competencies (N = 949)






























CD Hofstede






.046 .082 *














.121 **


.133 **


Pdi increase

.117 ** .089 * .007


.111 .128 ** .030 .110 **

.076 * .102 **



.151 ** .101 ** .031 .113 **


.078 *

077 * .087 *


Idv increase

Mas increase









Uai increase




.142 **




* p < .05.; ** p < .01.

positively affected study discipline, time management, problem-solv- ing, verbal communication, self motivation, motivate others and task delegation. Uncertainty avoidance increase negatively affected verbal communication and task delegation. Hypotheses 3, 4 and 6 are ac- cepted. Hypothesis 5 is rejected. For cross-cultural competences, the influence of cultural distance asymmetry was less present. Power distance increase had a positive influence on learning about formal socio-economic and political insti- tutions of the host country and negative influence on communicating with locals. Individualism increase made it easier to adapt to the com- munication style of colleagues, easier to apply conflict resolution skills and communicate with locals. Uncertainty avoidance increase had a negative influence on adapting to the communication style of col- leagues, communication with locals and a positive relationship with language hindrance. Since most of the cross-cultural competencies items didn’t relate to Hofstede dimension increases, we reject hypoth- eses 7, 8, 9 and 10. Psychic distance produced significant negative relationships with the learning of all management skills (Table 2 ). Hypothesis 11 is accepted. With regard to cross-cultural competencies ( Table 3 ) only strong neg- ative relationships were found with communication with locals and per- ception towards the host country, ‘‘I have begun to love my host country’’ and ‘‘I want to visit my host country again’’. Thus, larger psy- chic distance has a significant negative effect on the liking of another culture. Hypothesis 12 is rejected. We used a one-way ANOVA to compare the psychic distance means of different economic zone transitions. Analysis of variance showed that the effect of economic zone transition was significant (F = 9,468; df = 15; p < 0.00), which justifies the use of post hoc analyses, in our case the conservative Tukey HSD test. Table 4 shows a general pattern where psychic distance gradually increases as the intern travels to less economically developed countries. The perceived distance is highest when students travel to low income countries. The psychic distance dif- fers significantly in the following economic zone transitions. Interns who live in upper-middle-income countries perceived cultural distance to be significantly higher when travelling to low-income and other upper-middle-income countries, than to high-income countries.

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Table 4. Psychic distance related to economic zone transition, Mean and Sample size (N = 967)





High income


15.84 (8)

25.92 (4)

13.08 (10)

11.83 (21)


20.08 (13)

11.62 (15)

12.19 (48)

12.03 (93)


22.61 (44)

16.40 (38)

17.75 (53)

10.64 (112)

High income

21.85 (146)

17.92 (78)

15.96 (141)

11.37 (143)

Similarly, interns living in high-income countries perceived cultural distance to be significantly higher when travelling to low-income coun- tries, lower-middle-income countries and upper-middle-countries than other high-income countries. The ANOVA also provided additional information on cultural asym- metry. Post hoc analyses using Tukey HSD confirmed that the mean for psychic distance was significantly higher when travelling from high in- come countries to low income, lower-middle income countries and upper-middle income countries than vice versa.


Our objective is to measure perceived learning effects of overseas internships and the influence of cultural distance. Our study concludes that students think that they learn a broad range of management- and cross-cultural competencies. Interestingly, the influence of cultural dis- tance as measured by the Kogut and Singh index proved to be insignif- icant in respect of either management skills or cross-cultural competencies. Given the fact that, in contrast, both psychic distance and cultural asymmetry do point at significant correlations our find- ings provide support for earlier calls (Shenkar 2001 ) to re-examine the validity of the construct. With regard to management skills we found moderate learning ef- fects, which significantly decreased when interns travel to countries with higher power distance and a degree of lower individualism than typically encountered in their home country, or perceive high cultural distance. Following Feldman et al (1998) it could be that a lack of job autonomy and senior colleague support impede their learning. This might be due to unfamiliarity amongst managers in less-developed countries with the overseas internship, which is mostly a western con- cept. The lack of management skill utilization during overseas intern- ships has been noted by other authors (Feldman and Bolino 2000 ). As with domestic internships, interns often end up doing secretarial jobs and other low quality assignments. These problems can partially be solved by improving assignment procedures, work design, mentoring and organizational preparation for internship programs. In an interna- tional context, a lack of cross-cultural preparation, through training of language and communication skills, or previous experience could

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imply that interns are not able to do challenging work ( Feldman and Bolino 2000 ). In general, both psychic distance and cultural asymmetry do not seem to influence the perceived learning of cross-cultural competen- cies. This finding is in line with some of the recent expatriate research, which revealed no significant relation between cultural novelty and cul- tural adjustment (Selmer 2006 ). Surprisingly, business expatriates find it just as difficult to adjust to a similar culture as to a very different cul- ture. Selmer’s main argument is that expatriates underestimate the cul- tural subtleties when they travel to foreign cultures that they expect to be similar to their home country. Our findings show that interns per- ceive cultural adjustment to be fairly easy, regardless of where they travel. The rejection of hypotheses as well as the above discussion would suggest that our conceptual model could be reduced to a model where significant correlations exist only between the antecedents power dis- tance increase, individualism increase, psychic distance and the depen- dent variable management skills. However, as both psychic distance and cultural asymmetry have a significant negative relationship with the item ‘‘interaction between interns and locals’’, a more nuanced picture surfaces. Amongst others, it suggests that adaptation or integra- tion is difficult to achieve in these cases. One interpretation may be that the intern accepts and respects the different values and cultural expressions, but might not necessarily agree with them ( Bennett 1993 ). This argument could be further underpinned by the fact that many anecdotes conveyed by our respondents in the survey tell us that they received a significant degree of social support from other interns who happened to work in same city, region or country. As one student put it ‘‘If AIESEC trainees were not there, I think I would go crazy. I’m really happy that AIESEC United Arabic Emirates has in town more than 11 trainees, it was very helpful to have people with whom you chill out, have fun.’’. This is in line with expatriate literature which showed that expats maintain strong ties with other expats, favorably co-nation- als, and interacted little with local people outside work time (Manev and Stevenson 2001 ). Likewise, independent travelers often use back- packer enclaves to re-treat from unfamiliar territory, relax in a control- lable environment, share travel experiences with fellow travelers and plan new activities ( Hottola 2005; Howard 2007 ). The formation of ethnocentric networks is undesirable from a man- agerial and learning point of view. From a managerial perspective, re- search has shown that network closeness had a negative influence on expatriate psychological well-being ( Wang and Kanungo 2004 ). From a learning perspective, the intern may feel that he or she has fully ad- justed to the host culture, while in reality the expat enclave buffers ef- fects of the foreign culture ( Thompson and Tambyah 1999 ). Furthermore, the relatively short time frame of the internship, usually 5 months in duration (van Wijk et al forthcoming ), imposes limitations on realistic judgment. Hansel (1988) noted that year program ex- change students were more conservative in the perceptions of change than 3 months exchange students. Finally, the relatively young age of

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the students might prevent them from meaningful reflection (Dukes, Lockwood, Oliver, Pezalla and Wilker 1994 ) and explains the possible positive bias in perceptions. Thus as Litvin (2003) argues, one must exercise caution before claim- ing that inter-cultural understanding is truly achieved. On the other hand, students frequently mentioned that fellow trainees contributed significantly to their learning experience. ‘‘The most important and interesting part of my internship in Guatemala was living with other trainees that were going through a similar experience and sharing time and conversations with AIESEC members, which opened my eyes to- wards their and my own culture, enriching in that way the experience.’’ Such intercultural learning experiences among travelers is also noticed by Robert Wood (cited in Hottola 2005 ) and points to the importance of equal status in cross-cultural learning (Pizam et al 1991 ). Previous research has shown that an increase in cross-cultural com- petencies can be achieved under specific social support conditions, such as cross-cultural training prior to the trip, guidance during the exposure to and encounters with the host population, and post-trip contemplation and discussion (Pizam 1996 ). Reflective learning is also important to levering and justifying the academic value of experiential learning ( Steinberg 2002 ). As such, a balanced social support network of academic tutors, company mentors, co-nationals, fellow trainees and locals (e.g. buddy or host-family) holds the potential for an optimal learning experience (Hansel 1988 ). Cross-cultural training could be particularly effective for students who have to bridge a high psychic distance, such as students from high and middle-income countries travelling to low-income countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Cote D-Ivoire, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. Most countries in this re- gion belong to the poorest economic zone of the world with a GNP of below $ 2,000 per capita, and they score low on the traditional/secular- rational and survival/self-expression value dimensions ( Inglehart and Baker 2000 ). Our results imply that foreign students could not identify themselves with the host society values and found it difficult to estab- lish meaningful interactions. This should not come as a surprise. Said (1978) describes how for untold centuries the relations between cul- tures of humans and their subsequent linguistic construction of non- Western cultures as ‘‘Orientalism’’, that is a process of labelling the people of underdeveloped cultures as insignificant ‘‘others’’. Due to the negative stereotypes portrayed in western media ( Said 1978; Park and Wilkins 2005 ) students are likely to perceive the values of the ‘‘oth- ers’’ to be inferior. This perpetuates a centuries-old colonial mindset and foregoes the chance that inter-cultural interaction may result in learning and adopting certain practices from another culture. Ecolog- ical challenges in low-income countries in Africa or South Asia might also have contributed to making adjustment amongst Western students more difficult (Hottola 2004 ). In contrast, the interns from less devel- oped countries seem to find it relatively easy to adjust to high income countries and learn management skills. This could be due to more favourable job factors such as autonomy, senior colleague support

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and technological advances. It could also be that, by using the media, they have become familiarized with their destination cultures already at home, hence contributing to the low means for psychic distance. On the whole, pre-departure cross-cultural training could help stu- dents to prepare better and practically for their trip and mitigate cul- tural confusion. Training should deal with topics such as factual, conceptual and attributional cultural knowledge, stress and coping

strategies, intercultural business skills and information on daily living issues (Bennett, Aston and Colquhoun et al 2000; Leiba-O’Sullivan

1999 ).

If an intern learns little concerning management skills and cross-cul- tural competencies, organizational and educational support might be seen to have failed. In contrast, however, the intern could still perceive the travel experience worthwhile. Anecdotal evidence in our study sug-

gests that students’ travel motives are also related to self-development, adventure and fun. In our survey, the prominent self-development dimension was present in the learning of self-awareness and duplicates findings by van Wijk et al (forthcoming) and, on a more general level, Desforges (2000). Students learned to deal with unusual and unpre- dictable situations. Gmelch (1997) also found that the main impact of the travelling was on the student’s personal development. Students themselves, as well as their parents, indicated that the travels had in- creased students’ self-confidence and maturity, and their ability to cope with unusual and unpredictable situations (e.g. missing train con- nections, unavailable accommodation). In our case, an intern re- marked: ‘‘It was a phenomenal, life altering experience. It may not have met my initial expectations but that was the beauty of the experi- ence. I learned most from the times that things did not go the way that I expected them to.’’ However, according to Adler (1975) transitional experiences holds the potential for interns to go beyond mere behavioral adjustment and change value systems. In its optimal form the overseas internship provides a framework that prepares students to become immersed within a change experience and gain new insight in the importance of values as a belief system that shapes one’s goals and motivations. For example, van Wijk et al (forthcoming) found that the overseas internship had a significant higher influence on future career choices than domestic internships. Put differently, developing students under- standing of how they perceive and respond to cultural rules, not only those of others but also their own, holds a vast and rich potential to ad- dress inter-cultural communication barriers. Future studies could con- tribute importantly, by investigating the self-development dimension of educational travel in a more in-depth way.


In an era where cultural interactions have become more frequent and intense ( Magala 2006 ), this article explored the merits of educa- tional travel, in particular overseas internships, as a learning experi-

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ence for bridging cultural distance. In general, overseas interns believe themselves to learn a broad range of management skills and cross-cul- tural competencies. However, the findings also imply a wake up call for students, and by extension, educational institutions, intermediaries and host-organizations. The inclusion of educational travel programs in business school curricula doesn’t automatically produce globally competent individuals. Moreover, the study shows that students who travel to countries characterized by higher power distance, higher uncertainty avoidance or lower individualism, or high psychic distance, interact less with local people. In order to maximally leverage the learning effects of overseas internships, the educational travel segment should overcome the weak- nesses of its distributed network. Besides improving the factors that positively affect the skill utilization of interns (Feldman and Bolino 2000 ) a more professional approach is also needed in terms of social support by different actors in the home and host country. These actors should provide services that help interns to reduce uncertainties that arise due to cultural differences (Adelman, Ahuvia and Goodwin 1994 ). Such research would also benefit other service providers in- volved in educational travel. For example, Teichler (2004) notes that there is room for improvement in institutional support to ERASMUS exchange students in the European Union, in terms of language, soci- ety and culture. We believe that our research breaks the ground for analyzing issues that play a much wider role in tourism in general. At the moment, rel- atively little systematic research exists on the cross-cultural aspect of service encounters in tourism ( Weiermair 2000 ). However, the same factors that prevent interns from learning in their foreign working environment may play a role in shaping the tourists’ experience of how they are treated. Admittedly, straightforward generalization is dif- ficult, because our interns are much longer in the host country than the average tourist, but surely the moment of becoming acquainted with the host country and their way of dealing with people may be com- parable. This longer exposure, however, facilitates generalization to the sojourner literature, where many studies exist on the antecedents of cross-cultural adjustment (e.g Shaffer, Harrison and Gilley 1999 ), but systematic research on company support is lacking ( Manev and Ste- venson 2001 ). Future investigations of sojourners experience and sup- port networks will benefit both practitioners and researchers in the field of social sciences and business.

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Received 14 April 2007. Resubmitted 18 September 2007. Resubmitted 3 March 2008. Final Version 14 May 2008. Accepted 15 May 2008. Refereed anonymously . Coordinating Editor:

Carla Santos

Available online at

Accepted 15 May 2008. Refereed anonymously . Coordinating Editor: Carla Santos Available online at