Perhaps the first questions to ask yourself before going abroad are, “Why is this off-campus experience going to pay career dividends after I graduate?” “Should it?”
There are only about 300,000 undergraduates who study abroad out of about 20 million who are enrolled in higher education – a pretty elite group. It’s easy to see why this experience presents a unique opportunity to gain a perspective not open to very many college students in the United States.
Of course, students study abroad for a myriad of reasons and not all see a link between the experience of being abroad – in a classroom, in an internship or perhaps a service-learning program – and their future career development. And that’s okay. In the current job market, it’s not easy to see a straight line between the classroom and the workplace.
However, despite the uncertainties of the marketplace, there are a few unquestioned facts and trends.
Employers Do Value Education Abroad
Over the past ten years, many studies and surveys, conducted by companies and private organizations, have all come to the same conclusion: that employers value the practical skills and competencies which students can develop through their education abroad experience. They see skills in applicants – when carefully articulated in interviews! – which can only be gained from an international experience (especially if it is an internship or work placement). Language facility; adaptability, cross-cultural sensitivity, intellectual flexibility and political awareness, to name a few core skills.
In the global economy that all organizations and companies operate in, there is a need for private, nonprofit and public sector workers who understand how to perform their jobs in a rapidly changing international landscape.
Universities and Employers are Forming New Partnerships
Largely driven by a need to match talent to the requirements of their workplaces, employers are more often seeking ways to pro-actively connect with students on campus. Sometimes, this involves directly funding new curricular programs or supporting internship programs with a promise of direct hires of graduates as an outcome of participation in a directed course of study (as in the STEM fields). For example, both KPMG, the accounting firm, based in Chicago, and Infosys, based in India, have devised highly competitive global internship programs aligned with their need for talented graduates with specific skill sets in high demand. USAID needs more individuals with global health interests and training; Arabic remains in high demand within the military and defense industry; entering the UN system requires at least two years of work experience for entry-level assignments. Consider the value of prior international experience for the nurses and doctors who volunteered to contain the recent Ebola crisis.
Building an International Toolkit is an Asset in a Job Search
I frequently use the metaphor of creating a “toolkit” to describe the way students can store their experiences and draw from their kits, as needed, at the time they begin their job search process. Of course, you need those concrete documents – the resume, the cover letter – and you also need online tools like a complete LinkedIn profile. You also need to store your stories – those aspects of your international experience(s) which changed the way you see both yourself and others. The stories which shape your way of seeing the world. And those stories which depict the critical incidents which occurred while you were abroad that allowed you to become more resourceful, creative, purposeful, and persistent. Traits which will make you a valued employee in any domestic or international assignment.
To effectively make meaning of your international experience, and to articulate the skills you developed while abroad, my advice is to plan in a purposeful way to integrate study abroad within a career context. Think through your motives for going abroad and how a particular program, in a particular region/country, designed to maximize opportunity for practical experience along with a solid academic syllabus – will purposefully add value to your toolkit!
I think it’s essential to discuss program options with a study abroad advisor and also to explore the career implications of a planned international experience with a career services counselor. Be pro-active. Take time to consider the near and longer-term impacts of being abroad. And the time to do this is BEFORE you go – not upon your return to campus.
Martin Tillman is a nationally recognized expert on the linkage of education abroad to student career development. Tillman is President of Global Career Compass, an international consulting practice focused on global workforce trends and the impact of education abroad experiences on student career development. He is former Associate Director of Career Services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.