Career Advantages of Studying Abroad
Sheila J. Curran
What’s your dream? Touring castles in Scotland?
Walking on the Great Wall of China? Working to improve the lives of women in
rural Uganda? If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the
places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study. At many top
schools like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the
opportunity to complete part of their education outside the United States. Even
if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get
credit from a different school.
Multiple benefits accrue to
those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant
proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college
years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad
as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on. You’ll find that all
foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.
Employers are looking for
graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing.
They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and have an
appreciation for different points of view. They gravitate towards students who
demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity. All of these assets can be
demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set
yourself apart if you’ve taken the ‘easy route.’
It’s not hard to find the
‘easy route.’ That’s the one where you go with your friends to another country;
all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style
apartment where you live with your classmates. In this scenario, it doesn’t
matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English,
possibly even taught by your American professors. You’ll undoubtedly have a
somewhat different experience, but to do the ‘easy route’ is to forego some of
the major advantages of your time away.
Consider these ways of
standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your ‘hook.’
- Study in the language of
the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few
weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!)
You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an
interview in fluent Spanish.
- Live with a family, rather
than with fellow Americans. You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture
and how things work: great for a question on cross-cultural communications.
- Select courses that take
advantage of your study abroad location, such as art history in Florence, or a
study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
- Seize the opportunity to
do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying
abroad. You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work
with the local community. It may also make you want to come back after
- Experience things you’ve
never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or
bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco. Not every experience is
a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more
- Explore, explore,
explore. Make your own arrangements. Take trains and buses. Get off the
beaten path. Find villages that are not on any tourist map. Talk to the
local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.
Study abroad can be a welcome
relief from the rest of your studies or it can be the most formative experience
of a lifetime. It can be just one more item on your resume or it can provide
the most colorful examples in your interview. If you take a few calculated
risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you
will become that ‘memorable candidate’—the one who truly gets the employer’s
attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that
will stay with you for a lifetime.
Sheila J. Curran is the executive director of the Duke University Career
Center, and coauthor of Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to
Your Perfect Career (
http://www.smartmovesbook.com). She can be reached at 919-660-1072.