A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the efforts of colleges to involve their careers offices in helping students to make sense of their study abroad experience for the benefit of job resumes and interviews. While many employers see study abroad as a vacation, many students are unable to articulate what they have gained from a study abroad experience. So it’s a lose lose.
Interestingly, according to the article, it is the careers people rather than the study abroad offices taking the lead in this effort. That is a shame because the study abroad advisers and directors know more about the content of their programs. However, in order to advise students in a job search you have to see the world from the point of view of the employer and no one in the study abroad world seems to be asking if employers should value exchanges? The reason they do not ask is precisely because they take this as a given.
For years they have assumed it is only a matter of time before the most hard headed American sees the value of study abroad. “And that” to quote Yoda “is why they fail.” Many people in intercultural education or study abroad advising have done nothing outside of international education or education. To be clear there is absolutely no reason for employers to prefer an application with study abroad experience. Does it show independence? So does a part time job. Does it show an ability to mix with different ethnicities? So does coming from New York City.
Like colleges, employers are after people with proven abilities. Since study abroad programs vary, that means it is largely up to you the student to ensure maximum value for the job CV. It means if you are in a non English speaking country you must do your best to achieve fluency or at least ease in speaking and reading. Employers with overseas offices also need not value study abroad. If they need the language skills they can hire a native speaker. But if they want someone who writes English flawlessly and you have the foreign language skills, you may be the preferred candidate.
If you are in an English speaking country like Great Britain or Australia, master something about the country. Find out the challenges they face in immigration, health care costs, agriculture, museums, regional politics – anything that interests you. Then write something about it for the college newspaper, hometown newspaper or one of the many blogging fora for study abroad students and put that on the CV. Then an employer can see how well you write and be impressed that you had the independence of mind of investigate a topic and write it up. In the work world that’s called a memo and it is an important skill to possess.
Of course there are employers who do value the study abroad experience and I hope careers advisers are putting their organizations forward. The State Department, the Peace Corps and dozens of international development organizations want people that can navigate a foreign culture. But even they often want other skills or knowledge as well. Find out what you need and acquire it. In this competitive international market place with the US educating both foreign and American students for jobs anywhere in the world, the study abroad experience is just a nugget. It’s up to the student to find the gold.