In fall 2010, Lauren Guddahl left the United States for Germany to complete an unforgettable engineering internship with MTU Aero Engines. During her time in Germany, she had the chance to learn the culture and the language while gaining new computer skills, exposure to the working world, and practical experience. This past fall, Lauren decided to complete a second internship, this time with United Continental Holdings, dba United Airlines as an Aircraft Structures Intern. Both of these experiences have given Lauren knowledge and perspective that she would likely not otherwise possess, along with some great stories to share in future interviews.
What motivated you to do an internship abroad with MTU Aero Engines?
In May 2010, I did a study abroad program in Siena, Italy through Embry-Riddle. I have always loved to travel, and I absolutely fell in love with Italy and the idea of exploring the rest of Europe. The experience was one I can never forget and definitely changed my life for the better. Once I returned, however, I decided to focus more on school and my career. In doing this, I began to actively search for internships. I was initially searching for something during the summer or spring as I thought I was too late for the fall, but I found out that MTU Aero Engines was still searching for an intern, so I looked into it more closely. The idea of returning to Europe was extremely enticing, and as I researched the company itself, I became more and more interested in working there. I know I never would have even considered it if it had not been for the study abroad in Italy, but I still wasn’t too sure about moving to a country where I didn’t know anyone or speak the language! I applied anyway, and I was ecstatic when I was offered the position. I had neglected to tell anyone I had even applied for an internship (let alone one in Germany!) so after sharing and discussing the awesome news with my parents, some close friends, and the intern who was working at MTU at the time, I knew that I had to take advantage of such an opportunity.
Did you have any challenges to get visas or work authorization from Germany?
As a U.S. citizen, the visa process for working in Germany was theoretically simple. There is a German consulate in Miami that can issue visas in a few weeks as long as they have proof that I would be working for a company. While this seemed relatively simple, it was time consuming as I was not able to get proof of my work authorization until I had an official contract and filled out some other documents. Once I received the contract and other documents, however, I reached my first obstacle: everything was in German! I unfortunately did not have any knowledge of German prior to this experience, so I was starting to become more and more nervous about the whole ordeal. Eventually, though, I managed to translate the documents and get everything sent back to MTU, who then was responsible for submitting a request for work authorization on my behalf. I was told it would take about a week for everything to be processed so that I could apply for my visa, but it took much longer than that because all of the documents had to be originals. As my start date approached, I thought about backing out so many times. I was worried about so many things that I look back at now and can’t help but chuckle.
Initially, I was supposed to start working on September 1st. With the delay in getting my work authorization, I had to push that back until October 1st. In the interim, I still had not gotten that ever so important document that would allow me to apply for my visa, which was still going to take a few weeks to process. After speaking with my Human Resources contact at MTU and a few phone calls to the German Embassy, I learned that I could get my visa in Germany on the same day as long as I had the aforementioned work authorization document. By this time, however, I had already gone back home to New York as summer classes had ended. In the confusion of trying to get everything ready for moving to Munich for the next five months and going back home, my work authorization had finally been delivered, but to Florida two days before I was supposed to leave for Germany. Luckily, I was able to have it overnighted to me so I could actually get my visa once I arrived there.
The place I had to go once I was in Germany to get my visa was called the KVR. I had every intention of getting there first thing in the morning the day after I landed in Germany as I was told it was similar to a DMV structure, but I had the wrong directions to get there! Munich has an extremely convenient transportation network and it was easy to find where I wanted to go, but I had the wrong address to begin with. After walking around the neighborhood I thought it was in for a good hour, I finally mustered up some courage to ask someone for directions. Ordinarily, I would have asked much sooner, but knowing nothing more than basic words in German, my communication skills were extremely limited. It was an amusing process of pantomiming and pointing, but eventually I ended up in the right place and I was able to get my long sought after visa. However, the visa was only good for four months. Once I started working, I had to show that I had entered the country and my visa had been approved in order for MTU to obtain another work authorization document for me which would allow me to extend my visa for the duration of my internship. At the time, the entire visa process was one of the most stressful and nerve wrecking things I had to deal with. As I look back on it now, though, the entire thing seems amusing to me as the five months I stayed in Germany working with MTU were some of the most unforgettable experiences!
Tell us about your learning experience, both professionally and personally. Did you find it difficult working/living in a foreign country without speaking the language?
I learned so much more than I could have possibly imagined working at MTU. While I had worked in an office before, this was my first experience working in a technical position. At first, I was extremely frustrated because I felt that I knew nothing useful to contribute. While the people in my department were extremely friendly and helpful, it was clear the preferred language was German, which I knew very little of. As time went on, however, I adapted to my surroundings.
My daily tasks varied from day-to-day after the first few weeks. I was initially responsible solely for learning UniGraphics, a CAD program similar to CATIA. Once I mastered the program, I was given various assignments to create new parts, update older ones and their drawings. After I became more familiar with the company and the manufacturing process, I was given other tasks that would require me to speak with the machinists to collect data from the production floor. I would then compile this information into an Excel sheet or a PowerPoint presentation. Other projects I worked on consisted of translating information from German to English. One of the neat things about working for MTU was that I learned how a company functions, especially when they have branches in different locations. The production headquarters for MTU is located in Munich, but they have parts being made in Poland as well. This made it essential for documents used by both branches to be in English as it had been deemed the official language of MTU.
I also enjoyed the work environment at MTU. There were many facilities available for workers such as a gym, library, and a supermarket. There was only one cafeteria within a reasonable distance for employees without a car, which was on the “campus,” but it had amazing food for a subsidized cost. At least once a week, traditional German food was served, which allowed me to try a new cuisine without spending too much money. Scheduling was extremely lax compared to the work structure most people are familiar with: 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The only thing that mattered at MTU was that you had an average working time of 35 hours per week. This was especially nice since I would occasionally have a project that I would work on for several days without seeing daylight, but then I could have a three or four day weekend without taking any time off.
While I did learn a lot of technical terms and about the manufacturing process, I learned much more about myself as an individual. I have always been rather independent, but I never realized how much I could do on my own if I had to. I also never appreciated how much I do need people. I wouldn’t classify myself as a loner by any standard, but I do enjoy time to myself more than most people deem reasonable. Being forced to be alone, however, was a completely new concept for me and one I most definitely did not enjoy.
Additionally, I discovered how nice complete strangers could be. Assumptions are made that most people are generally cold to the rest of the world simply because they just don’t care. While on several of my many weekend trips throughout Western Europe, I was graciously helped by a local (or someone who at least knew the area well enough) when I was looking at a map or clearly lost. I didn’t even have to ask for help – it was automatically given to me by a passerby who could tell I was a tourist. When I was stranded at a train station for an evening on my way to Prague, two café owners allowed me to wait inside and gave me a full meal and hot tea even though they were closed because it was cold outside. While most of us would do these things for people we know, we are less likely to offer our compassion to strangers. It shocked me how common it was elsewhere, though. Of course there are those people who wouldn’t help, but I found that most people would and it has become one of my goals to follow that mentality.
When I first arrived in Germany, I was extremely excited about everything that not being able to communicate with people didn’t exactly cross my mind as becoming a difficulty. After a few days, however, it all hit me at once. As I mentioned, people at MTU could speak English, but it was not preferred. When I was involved in a conversation, my co-workers would try to teach me words and phrases, but it was still frustrating for both parties. It did make things extremely difficult at first, but eventually we found an effective way to communicate. Outside of MTU, many people could speak English. I did pick up the important phrases and a bit more of the basic conversations, but I have to admit, if there is one language to know, it is definitely English. This may be an extremely arrogant viewpoint for all native English speakers, but it is the most commonly spoken language and is the most probable reason for why English speaking countries do not take learning a foreign language as seriously as others in my opinion. Most of Europe requires two languages to be studied in addition to the native one.
I see that you are doing a second internship with United Airlines currently. What are the benefits you will take away from these two internships when looking for a full-time career?
My internship with Continental/United (I use the two names with a backslash because I was there during the official time when the FAA approved the merger of the two airlines) in the fall was also an amazing experience. The opportunities I had from working with them are innumerable. Having an inside look to what goes on in more than one company gave me a lot of insight on certain aspects regarding daily operational procedures. While I was treated well at both companies and loved what I was doing in both positions, I definitely felt more involved with Continental/United. Since I was part of the technical operations department, I was legally considered a Continental employee until the merger was FAA official on November 30, 2011. Whether this feeling was due to the fact that I could generally understand all of the conversations that took place around me, I had more technical experience at that point, or I was more interested in the structures side of aircraft than engines could all be considered, but it is definitely something that will help me decide what type of full-time position I would like once I graduate.
I believe that having the interview and practical experiences will also assist me in searching for a job because I will have an idea of the general questions an employer might ask me. I will be able to describe in detail certain projects I worked on, which might give me a leading edge over another prospective employee. I know I had my doubts about doing both of my internships, but I am more than grateful that I took advantage of the offers because there are so many more things that I learned on my internships that I feel could never really be learned in school. There is definitely not enough hands on experience when you are in school, and that’s what I valued most about working with MTU and Continental/United.
What advice would you give students who are contemplating doing an internship experience?
DO IT! There is no substitution for an internship! I truly believe everyone could gain something from an internship, and I can’t understand why it is not a requirement for all majors to have one. At orientation my freshman year, one of the speakers told us one thing I will never forget: “There are two things every student should do while in college: a study abroad and an internship.” I could not agree more with these words, especially now. The experience, knowledge, and contacts you gain are not comparable to what you learn in school. It also gives you insight to what you may or may not want to do. I thoroughly enjoyed using CATIA every day of my EGR 120 class, and I thought my internship with MTU was going to be just as enjoyable. I did appreciate the experience, but I learned it is definitely not what I want a career in.
The fundamentals and theories are important and essential for getting any position, but experience is also necessary. While I am aware that most students do not want to postpone graduating a semester later than originally anticipated (I was one of those people not too long ago), it is completely worth it! You go to school to get a job – if you’re being offered job experience while you are still in school – there is no reason to decline it. I have too many friends who were extremely successful in school, but they have graduated and cannot secure a job or get accepted into a graduate program because they lack experience. An internship gives you exactly that!