An American expat running a study abroad program in the Gulf region recently commented on LinkedIn that when students were asked: “What were your expectations before the trip?,” their responses generally were: “I thought it was going to be a vacation,” or “I thought there was going to be more down time.” The perception that study abroad falls solely within the tourism or leisure travel sector is present in some experiences. And all too often, students’ cognizance of the relationship between study abroad and employability takes place well after the experience, if at all.
Can we expect students to connect the dots? I don’t fault students for making the decision to study (or work, serve, or intern) abroad without giving extensive consideration as to how their experience will strengthen their employability post-graduation. That’s pretty abstract and removed from the immediate concerns of a sophomore or junior (although critically important for low-income and first-generation students). Students decide to participate in all manner of cocurricular programs for varied and valid reasons. But I think it would dispel some of the students’ misperceptions and would make study abroad more meaningful if institutions make it explicitly clear that international experience is viewed as an integral asset to students’ academic and career goals. That such an experience “extends the knowledge gained in the classroom and prepares students to be global professionals upon graduation” (Murrell).
Do campuses structure their career and study abroad advising to help students make this connection? Unfortunately, few do. I recently copresented a webinar for the National Association of Colleges and Employers on the topic of leveraging study abroad for employability. The audience comprised career service staff at 71 academic institutions. When asked if their students understood the linkage between studying abroad and their future employability, 86 percent of the participants responded with a “no” or “unsure.” The webinar illustrated some of the reasons for this gap in student expectations. Inertia, lack of time, and lack of resources were three cited reasons as to why these offices were not more engaged with helping students understand how to leverage their international experience into employability. These are the same reasons often cited by study abroad offices in surveys. So there is a lot of work to be done.
Despite the extensive research that outlines the corresponding relationship between international experiences and the skill sets employers value, campuses aren’t making these connections clear enough to their students. These benefits could easily become the foundational aspects of informational sessions aimed at students at the beginning stages of their exploration of going abroad. Campuses could do more to post such data points online for students to share with their parents and families to help them make the case about the practical value of going abroad. Institutions could also present video interviews featuring recent alumni addressing how their international study, work, or internship helped them obtain their first job after graduation or advance their career. Further, why not enlist senior officers at local or state businesses, nonprofits, state economic development offices, and other employers to speak about the important role that international experiences play in the economic development of their industry and the community.
Initiatives such as 100,000 Strong and the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad, which seek to dramatically increase the number of students studying abroad in the coming decade, will only further widen the gap for students who may not fully understand how their overseas experience can support their future career development and employability. It is a challenge for all education abroad professionals to help them connect the dots.
Interested in learning more? Join me on Thursday, June 2, from 4:00 p.m.–4:45 p.m. for my presentation, “Leveraging Education Abroad to Strengthen Student Employability and Career Development,” in the Career Center located in Four Seasons Ballroom 4.
Audrey J. Murrell, “Moving From Study Abroad to Career Integration,” Huff Post College (blog), Huffington Post, February 11, 2016,