Career Corner: How Does an International Experience Give You an Edge?

Career Corner: How Does an International Experience Give You an Edge?

You are now back in the U.S. or maybe your native country, and looking for work.  You get an interview and the interviewer asks you: “How can my organization benefit from your experience overseas?” Good question. Have you thought it?

We are all the converted, of course. Fulbrighters believe that international education is a good thing. We intrinsically know that it benefits society in many ways. And it benefits us as individuals. But how?

David J Smith — career coach, author, and Fulbrighter

As a parent of two children who are very global, I think about this a lot.  My son recently returned from service in the Peace Corps, where he was teaching mathematics in Namibia.  While in college, he studied abroad in Turkey, which prepared him for the Peace Corps.  And my daughter is about to leave for a semester of study in South Korea. She is a sophomore in college. I believe that experiences abroad will make them better people: more empathic, more understanding and accepting of people who are different, better able to deal with change, and yes, better packers (especially my son). But how about in terms of advancing a career? Will it make a difference that they studied or worked abroad during college, in the Peace Corps, or maybe one day in the Fulbright program?

You may feel that that your experience benefits you in a career. And now, there is research that supports this.  In 2017 the Institute of International Education (IIE) published a study of those who have engaged in experiences abroad. In Gaining an Employment Edge: The Impact of Study Abroad on 21st Century Skills & Career Prospects in the United States (IIE, October 2017), it was found that study abroad “provides an opportunity for students to gain work-related skills in a global context.”

Here are the seven key findings from the study.  When you read them, think about how these are discernible in your own skills, aptitudes, and approaches.

  • Study Abroad Has an Overall Positive Impact on the Development of a Wide Range of 21st Century Job Skills. Some of the skills noted include communication skills, confidence, curiosity, language skills, teamwork, and problem solving.  As you can see, most are often considered “soft” skills” and require a high level on intercultural understanding.
  • Study Aboard Expands Career Possibilities. The study found that study abroad opened career pathways and “helped participants feel more ambitious and less tentative in their careers.”
  • The Skills Gained Through Study Abroad Have a Long-Term Impact on Career Progression and Promotion. According to the study, this was particularly the case in promotion where skills like communication and interpersonal skills were critical.
  • Longer Periods of Study Abroad Have a High Impact on Subsequent Job Offers and the Development of Most Skills. Short Term Programs are the Most Effective at Developing Teamwork Skills.  In particular, the study found, that teamwork is enhanced in shorter study abroad programs, likely because short-term programs are more structured.  In longer study abroad, foreign language is a significant benefit.
  • STEM Majors Highly Value the Gains Made in Skills Outside of Their Majors During Study Abroad. Study abroad can provide a diversion from the coursework that you are usually engaged in at your institution.  My son was an engineering major  as an undergraduate, but while in Turkey he took courses in a range of areas including culture.  My daughter is an elementary education major – not a STEM area of course – but she plans on not taking any education courses in Korea.
  • Choosing a Less Familiar Destination Was Positively Associated with Skill Development and Sense of Career Impact. This is the difference between study abroad in, say, Canada, or in Fiji for Americans.  Certainly, spending time in Canada is valuable (I’m part Canadian myself), but an unfamiliar destination provides more learning opportunities (especially if you don’t like cold weather).
  • Student Intentionality and Highly Structured Programs Contribute to Skill Development. Here the study found that those who have a career focus in mind before study abroad, have a better experience that is more related to their career.   That seems obvious and maybe why in undergraduate education study abroad is typically a junior year activity.

So, what did you learn about yourself?  Were these the benefits you acquired in study abroad or as a Fulbrighter?  The better you are able to articulate how your experience benefited you, the better you can answer how it will benefit a prospective employer.

—David J. Smith

David J. Smith (Fulbright Scholar, Estonia 2003-2004) is a career coach and the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is on the career advisory board of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network. David writes regularly on career issues at davidjsmithconsulting.com. He can reached at davidjsmith@davidjsmithconsulting.com.

1 Response

  1. Nancy Neill

    Good article, David.

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