One of the most highly circulated jobs in international education is the Study Abroad Advisor.
It may come by different names: Advisor, Coordinator or Assistant, but the main focus of an advising position typically involves working with university students and preparing them for their time abroad. While the Internet memes may depict us as jet setting around the world or sipping a latte with an eager student, the real work behind our jobs might surprise you. Here are several pros and cons to being a university study abroad advisor.
Reliving your experiences
There is at least one opportunity every day, if not more, to relive or share your own study abroad experience. If you are fortunate enough to advise students interested in studying in the region where you’ve had experience, it might happen more frequently. Students are looking for honest feedback about a location: the city, living arrangements, host university, nightlife, etc. Working as an advisor allows you to make the connection between certain segments of your experience to highlight why the program you chose was a good fit. Much of study abroad advising is finding the program that suits the student, and as an advisor you will be the one helping them to navigate through the options.
Connecting with students
If a job where you get connect with students is important to you, advising positions are one way to get there. Some professionals are drawn to advising because they themselves had a strong advisor, or an absent advisor, when they were studying abroad. The ability to assist students in the study abroad process from choosing their location to coping with homesickness to returning to campus can be a rewarding one. Although most of the interaction will take place in an office-setting and behind a desk, there are often informal advising sessions out on campus, study abroad fairs, and other events where you may be able to strike up an informal conversation with a student.
Learning after the fact
As a student of international education, it’s quite possible that you will want a job in which you can keep learning. Study abroad is only one facet in the wide world of international education, and many positions may overlap into International Students and Scholars or other aspects of the field. You may also learn more about yourself and your own experience abroad. For example, my own experience in a traditional semester-long language immersion program had me wondering about the value of short-term study abroad. After several years of working with students on choosing a short-term or long term program, I have a better understanding of the benefits and also the student reasoning for leaning one way or another.
It is difficult to overstate how valuable it can be to work at a university, whether it is your alma mater, a small private or a huge state school. The benefits you may have overlooked as an undergraduate: access to sports, theater, music, wellness, are often available to staff. Many schools will offer tuition assistance or remission if you (or your family) want to take classes or pursue another degree. Working at a university also involves a great number of people for you to connect with. Think about the study abroad process: registration, billing, conduct, financial aid – everyone plays a part. It’s a great way to meet people, learn about other areas of the university, and practice your customer service.
Yes, sometimes we travel
Depending on the university, the size of your office, and its corresponding budget, it’s possible that you may get to travel as an entry-level employee. Widely recognized international education organizations like NAFSA and the Forum on Education will host yearly annual and regional events both in the U.S. and abroad. These can include workshops for up-and-coming staff members as well as plenty of networking opportunities. Site visits abroad to partner schools in other countries may also be possible, but don’t get your hopes up! At most schools, upper level staff members will likely have more access to travel opportunities and funds, but they may support a day trip to a neighboring city for a workshop or an online course for entry-level employees looking to expand their skill set.
Advising can be repetitive
If you are attracted to the idea of advising students on study abroad, bear in mind you will repeat yourself – often. Some schools have a general information session that students are required to attend before they have a one-on-one with an advisor – you may even be asked to give the session. That will introduce students to the basics of how study abroad works at your school, but ultimately you will be posing the same questions to every student and soothing the same anxieties centered around the where, when, how, and how much.
Depth of interaction with students
Although many of us might like to spend unlimited amounts of time helping students who are making the decision to study abroad, the reality is far less likely. Because offices are often under-staffed and trying to raise the numbers of students studying abroad, you are forced to limit your interactions with students in order to help as many students as possible. If you are meeting with a first generation student who is scared about traveling to Costa Rica this summer, you may have to identify other resources that they can use to help prepare for the journey rather than take them under your wing and devote an hour to their case.
Paperwork and administrative stuff
This is the reality in every university job: the physical pieces of the student process, both confidential and highly important. Many schools are moving to online application databases that save the actual paper, but it doesn’t mean the process is any less important or administrative. Interactions on the student’s behalf to host institutions, providers, parents, campus offices are all necessarily documented. If you think you send a lot of emails now, double that and then add ten. In large part, the university study abroad advisor is a paper pusher and a student chaser. During the follow-up to a student committing to study abroad, there is a great deal of paperwork, signatures, passport copies, flight itineraries… you get the idea. Someone has to chase them down and collect information, and that person might be you.
Put your suitcase away
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about working in international education. Let’s get one thing straight: We are not all traveling all the time! Some study abroad advisors might say they are more of a travel agent in their advising role, not a traveler. At some schools, it may fall to the study abroad advisor to book flights for students and faculty, which can include lots of back and forth between companies and individuals. While travel is possible for entry-level positions, it may be domestic or non-existent for the first year of employment. You may very well be traveling from the comfort of your desk chair through your students’ Instagram photos for a while and that’s ok.
A university advising job is a tremendous way to gain experience and exposure to the international education field. Be realistic about the workload and your own expectations, and look for a university culture that suits you, and an office that allows you to use your strengths for all the ups and downs for an advising job.
Kelly Holland is the Associate Director of Study Abroad at Towson University. She first left the U.S. at age 20, and spent a semester in Granada, Spain with the American Institute of Foreign Study (AIFS). She returned several years later to teach English for the Spanish Ministry of Education in Andalucia. Kelly holds a M.Ed. in Comparative and International Education from Lehigh University, and a B.A. in International Business and Spanish from Moravian College. She currently resides in the state of Maryland.