Put your Study Abroad Experience to Work

April 10, 2012work-abroad
By Alex Parrott

Study abroad experience can help distinguish you in the job market—but only if you’re able to articulate what you got out of it. “Many of the experiences students have abroad — from immersion in a language to figuring out the local public transportation system — can translate into skills that employers value,” said Lori Lyons, assistant director for career services at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. “But you have to know how to communicate those skills.”

Once you’ve unpacked your suitcase, here are some ways to translate your time abroad into a great job on the home front.

Think like a boss

“First consider what employers are looking for,” said Lyons, who recommends consulting the National Association of Colleges and Employers annual survey of most-sought skills. “Then brainstorm ways that study abroad helped you hone those skills.”

One of the top items on the 2012 list is a candidate’s verbal communication abilities, which gives those who have studied abroad a real boost.

“Students who study abroad tend to improve upon their English communication skills, especially when they study in a country where English is not the primary language,” said Carolyn Yencharis Corcoran, study abroad advisor and assistant director of the Insalaco Center for Career Development at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

The tools of navigating an unfamiliar culture are all qualities of excellent communicators, said Corcoran.

“You gain the ability to listen with intent, re-frame your thoughts, communicate concisely, and notice non-verbal cues, as well as a strong desire to understand and be understood.”

Cross-cultural experience is more important to some employers and companies than others. You’ll want to play up your experience for those companies who most appreciate it.

“Pay attention to the language of the job posting,” said Lyons. “Research the organization and see if international experience is valued.”

Of course, study abroad experiences that were academically rigorous and tie into a student’s long-term aspirations will make a positive impression on nearly every employer, says Maryann Tebben, professor of French and current director of the Liebowitz Center for International Studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass.

“These students are not passive consumers of study abroad or academic life,” she said. “These are doers and activists, in the literal sense.”

Take time for reflection

Analyze your strengths and weaknesses before and after your trip, said Lyons. Exploring where you were in the development of certain skills before you leave and again once you return home enables you to determine what skills you honed while abroad.

All students at Susquehanna are required to participate in “GO: Global Opportunities,” a program where each student studies off campus in a cross cultural experience for a minimum of two weeks. Students are then required to take a two-credit reflection course upon their return to campus.

“Reflection is the real learning experience of study abroad,” explained Scott Manning, director of cross-cultural programs at SU. “That’s when students are able to see the growth that they have made while they have been away. They can compare their beliefs, values and ideas against those they held before they left.”

Wrapping your head around your personal and academic growth will help reinforce awareness of your own qualifications and abilities. You might even be surprised by just how transformative study abroad was.

“By successfully navigating through unfamiliar territory without parental help or the comfort of their peers,” said Corcoran, “many students gain assertiveness and problem-solving skills, as well as a stronger sense of self-confidence and independence.”

Include it on your resume

By now you’ve gotten to the point where you’re aware of the value of your study-abroad experience – how do you broadcast it?

“If you went abroad, you should certainly include it on your resume somewhere,” said Lyons. If you studied abroad at another university or college, including the school’s information and address on your resume is helpful, she added.

Then again, it never hurts to be more specific about your educational and professional accomplishments.

“Certainly if you’ve developed some additional language skills, mention that,” said Ryan Brechbill, director of the Center for Career Planning at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. “Companies very often value this, depending on the clientele.”

Volunteer or internship experience is a shoe-in for inclusion, of course, and can fit in just about anywhere on your resume. But what if you need room for a slew of internationally themed items?

The good news is that the resume format is flexible – organize it in whatever way best highlights your particular strengths.

“Students can even give their study abroad experience its own separate category, such as ‘international experience,’” said Corcoran.

Be prepared for interview questions

“You might be asked a very direct question, such as ‘Why did you choose to study abroad? What did you learn? Why did you go to that particular country?’” said Lyons.

But almost any job interview question can be used to highlight your new cross-cultural skills.

“One of the best openings for a student to share an experience abroad is if the employer asks for an example of an accomplishment that gave the student a feeling of satisfaction,” said Lyons.

The job interview provides ample room for the kinds of details that fall through the cracks of a concise, well-crafted resume. Going in-depth on explaining how your skills you developed will benefit the employer can never hurt, advised Brechbill.

In general, let your study abroad credentials work as a confidence-booster. International savviness can only help you in today’s workforce.

“I think that the push to study abroad is also coming from employers,” said Katy E. Leonard, post-baccalaureate adviser and director of the exploration term and contract learning at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. “Higher education institutions are responding to globalization in the workplace as one of the reasons to study abroad.”

“Study abroad gives you an opportunity to observe different sets of cultural interactions, from etiquette to political systems,” she added. “All of this will prepare you for approaching these interactions later as part of a company.”

Alex Parrott is a senior English major at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He spent the fall 2010 semester in Prague with SIT Study Abroad.

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