“In June of 2011, I returned from studying abroad.”
I had spent four months studying in Oxford, England, and two traveling around Europe and India. My repertoire of cultural experiences was strong, and my desire to use everything I’d learned abroad was soaring. There was only one problem: I didn’t know how to capitalize on my international experiences. In fact, I wasn’t even positive what skills I had specifically gained. I knew how to recover from food poisoning in India, to write a solid academic paper at Oxford, and how to outrun all too charming Florentine boys. But how do you apply those sorts of intercultural experiences into a psychology major in the United States? My answer was extremely simple: you don’t, at least not directly.
The spring after studying abroad, I began to mentor an exchange student on my campus. Kayla was a nervous yet determined college student from Seoul. I was expecting to meet with her once a week or so during the semester and to serve as a sort of informal counselor, a nice addition to my psychology portfolio. But it was quickly apparent to me that what Kayla needed was not a counselor, but an ally. She needed a ride to Target, she needed help finding her classes, and she needed information about how to get extra help on assignments. She didn’t need a weekly meeting to process her experiences; she needed someone to help her bridge the cultural gap.
Watching Kayla struggle through culture shock, homesickness, and life abroad was more eye opening than having gone through all those same experiences myself. Not only did I begin to understand the depth of vulnerability that comes with being a cultural outsider, I also got to see how Kayla influenced those around her. By asking how to fit into American culture, she helped us to realize that cultures and worldviews differ from country to country, and that each one is neither right nor wrong.
My experience working with Kayla prompted me to begin exploring international career options. I applied for a few jobs in study abroad, but I didn’t get interviews because I wasn’t qualified. At some point I came across the Monterey Institute of International Studies in a Google search. Upon visiting, I found the campus to be full of other study abroad returnees, all committed to integrating international experience with finding solutions for the world’s largest issues. Some students are focused on rethinking environmental policy, others want to run non-profit organizations in developing countries, a very dedicated cohort of language learners are determined to become world class translators and interpreters. The program that seemed to best fit my career goals was International Education Management.
In 2012 I started my Master’s program and began an intensive degree program that taught me about not only about the field of International Education, but how to design and run study abroad and international student programs. I began to attend conferences with my professors and meet professionals in the field who have spent their lives working to create possibilities for more students to gain international and intercultural experience. While some professionals help students with logistics, others build programs to support students throughout their academic programs. It amazed me that such jobs not only exist, but make up an entire career field. In fact, the exchange of students between countries added about $24 billion to the U.S. economy alone last year (according to the Institute of International Education). There are countless niches in the field, just as there are in any large trade economy.
By the following summer I had gained the skills and confidence to run a summer program for 86 Chinese students who were in the process of transferring to American universities. I was hired to lead a team of staff who advised the Chinese students on cultural adaptation and thriving in the American classroom. My greatest reward was helping students to adjust to another culture, while getting paid to call upon my own international experiences. I was literally using skills I learned abroad.
My current understanding of international careers is that there are so many of them that the actual words “international career” are almost meaningless. An international career could mean a thousand different things, and so it takes some exploring to begin to realize where you want to place your feet. For me, it felt natural to choose International Education Management; everything I’d ever been truly passionate about pointed in this direction. My best advice for aspiring international professionals is to creatively analyze what part of the world you would most like to change. For some this will be environmental policies, others desperately want to increase human security or change the way international conflicts are approached. All of these (and so many more) are completely realistic careers. The challenge is to bridge the gap between passion and having the skills to make a positive difference.
I finished my Master’s degree through a practicum in the Enrollment Office at the Monterey Institute. My job was to help recruit students; but I took this to mean that it was my job to help spread the word about how individuals like me (and like you) can make an impact in the world. I spoke with hundreds of undergraduates at colleges and universities around the country this past fall, and the most exciting part of my work was watching students’ faces light up as they begin to realize that there is a realistic way to use skills gained from study abroad.
My boss told me that at the Monterey Institute we are pragmatic idealists. This is true. A pragmatic idealist is someone who finds realistic, possible ways to achieve something that seems unreal, or impossible. It’s a contradiction, in a sense. But then again, so is the world we live in. My challenge to you, as a study abroad returnee, is to keep being a contradiction. Keep dreaming, and dream bigger. You have more skills than you think you do, and you can make an impact. Truly, you are just at the beginning of your international experiences.
Rebecca Owen graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a Master’s in International Education Management. Previously, she earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, she works for the Monterey Institute’s Enrollment Office. Her goal is to help increase international student mobility through marketing, enrollment, and policy.