Study Abroad… BUT Why?
Welcome to my blog series on study abroad! Study abroad is becoming an increasingly important and valued part of a college education. This series will first look at why study abroad is important for personal development and success in the job market, then will move on to ‘getting off the veranda’ (or the importance of true immersion during a study abroad experience), and finish with how students can make their experience ‘work for them’ by providing tips on how to showcase their international experiences. Enjoy!
Fellow blogger and colleague Sarah Spiegel wrote an important blog a few days ago called “Generation Study Abroad: The Quest to Become “Citizen Diplomats.” In her post, Sarah discussed the very real boundaries that exist for students who want to study abroad. But as someone who has studied abroad, worked abroad and now works in study abroad, I believe more needs to be said on why students should go abroad and why institutions of higher education should work harder to get their students abroad through outreach and funding opportunities.
While it is true that only about 10% of American undergraduates are studying abroad, these 10% (about 300,000 students) are quickly becoming much more competitive in the job market than their peers without international experience. Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, an international careers’ expert who helped do research for the popular study abroad guide A Student Guide to Study Abroad, found that employers across many industries hire students who have studied abroad for very specific skills sets: ability to solve problems in complex, unfamiliar situations; adaptability with culturally diverse situations; excellent communication skills; and practical, useful knowledge of languages and cultures (Why Study Abroad).
Students often develop these ‘soft skills’ while they are studying abroad. However, these skills are not developed through chance while abroad; they are the direct result of interacting with local classmates and professors, interning or volunteering abroad with local companies and groups, and studying abroad on programs that enhance students’ academic programs (programs that aren’t just travel abroad but STUDY abroad).
Students who return from study abroad are certainly reporting these changes. IES Abroad, a large study abroad provider, recently polled its program alumni from 1950-1999 on the value of study abroad. 3,400 of their alumni responded, saying that study abroad mature more than they did during their whole on-campus career. They gained intercultural communication skills that not only gave them appreciation for other cultures, but also prepared them to be leaders in global workplaces. Many alumni also said that specific classes, internships or relationships helped them move into jobs that advanced their careers. Also, 42% of students who lived in a homestay report that they now use a language other than English on a regular basis (IES, The Benefits of Study Abroad).
These sentiments are being echoed all over right now from the New York Times Room for Debate: Study Abroad is Essential, where international experts debated the value of study abroad, to a recent RAND study of HR managers, which states intercultural competence was the 5th most desired attribute of an employee, to the Generation Study Abroad developed by the Institute for International Education (IIE- the group that also brings us the Fulbright program) that aims to double the number of Americans studying abroad by 2020. Colleges and universities around the country are signing on and pledging to increase the number of students going abroad on their campuses.
Generation Study Abroad has also been noticed by the White House, particularly by the First Lady who has become a very vocal supporter of study abroad. Mrs. Obama spoke with CNN on April 4 stating that
“the benefits of studying abroad are almost endless. First of all, it is going to make you more marketable in the United States. More and more companies are realizing that they need people with experience around the world.”
There is a noticeable trend of employers desiring more globally aware employees with international experience coupled with the trend of colleges and advocacy groups around the country pushing their students to go abroad more than ever is creating a supply and demand like never before. Employers are demanding candidates with international experience and colleges and universities are supplying more graduates than ever who have studied, interned, volunteered, taught and lived abroad. Now, institutions of higher education and study abroad program providers must also create funding sources and (or) create study abroad programs that maximize the experiences the students can have abroad while minimizing the price the students must pay. Colleges and providers must strive to make programming affordable so that all students can have the opportunity to go abroad, not just the students who can afford it.
Stay tuned for the next blog in the series, Study Abroad, BUT Get Off the Veranda!