Practice Area Column
Education Abroad

Résumé Boosters: Connecting Study Abroad to Career Prospects

To emphasize career skills, education abroad programs must look beyond overseas experiences—and their immediate rewards.
A growing evidence base suggests that education abroad experiences help students once they return to their home campus—and then in their careers. Illustration: Shutterstock
 

When students at Babson College couldn’t travel on a faculty-led course to China in 2021, Amir Reza, PhD, paired them with entrepreneurs associated with that country’s massive Alibaba service. Working online in small cohorts, they collaborated with their Chinese counterparts on feasibility studies for entering the U.S. market across a range of companies and products. Even virtually, working with international entrepreneurs shifted perspectives—and provided valuable career skills.

“The kinds of skills [students] gained are essentially the ability to analyze, interpret, and evaluate across cultures,” says Reza, dean of Babson College’s Academy for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurial Learning and co-author of NAFSA’s Careers in International Education: Guidance for New Professionals. “They can promote that in their résumés with experience [with] a major brand.”

A growing evidence base suggests that education abroad experiences help students once they return to their home campus—and then in their careers. A NAFSA report found that more than 31 million job openings in 2019 required the kinds of skills that students acquire while studying abroad and that employers spend more time filling those positions due to the challenges of finding qualified applicants—not surprising, as only about 10 percent of undergraduate students participate in education abroad experiences.

Students also give study abroad high marks for career development: a 2017 report by the Institute for International Education (IIE) surveyed more than 4,500 college alumni who participated in study abroad programs. The report revealed that a large majority of students found that their experience studying abroad helped them develop a wide range of job skills and expanded their understanding of career possibilities. More than half said they believed their experience abroad contributed to a job offer.

“Employers value [the international experience], but they don’t necessarily know how to value it.” —Bill McShane

Even so, the challenge for international educators is making thoughtful connections between study abroad experiences and career skills in ways that students and their future employers can easily recognize.

“Employers value [the international experience], but they don’t necessarily know how to value it,” says Bill McShane, MPIA, associate director for integrated learning at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. “We’ve tried to frame it in transferable skills and have students think consciously about them and translate those skills into interviews or discussions with employers.”

“No Shortcuts”

Like all experiential learning, intentional efforts must be taken before, during, and after a study abroad experience to maximize the growth of career skills, international educators say. While strategies vary, study abroad professionals emphasize that this approach can work across a broad spectrum of programming, from virtual and short-term programs to semester or yearlong study abroad experiences. “What’s really important is you have to have the whole process,” says Jacqueline Saslawski, JD, MA, director of Bryant University’s international business program. “There are no shortcuts.”

The following strategies span the full cycle of education abroad experiences.

Marketing

The cycle begins before students express interest in study abroad—or even attend a particular institution. Collateral sent to prospective students, as well as on-campus messaging, about education abroad opportunities should emphasize the personal, academic, and professional growth that come from international experiences. This information plants the seed that study abroad yields tangible benefits even before students commit to a specific program.

“The earlier they think about it, the more likely they are to recognize how the learning can move toward career readiness,” says Brynn Smith, MA, assistant director of international programs and services at Evergreen State College amd education abroad representative on the NAFSA Region I leadership team.

Predeparture

Education abroad advisers should encourage students to target certain skills and set goals before embarking. Doing so, Smith says, helps students identify “the gaps you feel you have in your toolkit and what this opportunity is presenting to you.”

While working together at Pitt, McShane and Saslawski used research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and interviews with campus stakeholders to identify a basket of twenty-first-century skills; MBA students then used self-assessments to identify three or four broad skills to develop or sharpen during their experience abroad. While these goals often result in a deliverable, such as an elevator pitch or executive presentation, the focus is “about how they got there,” Saslawski says. “Setting, reflecting, unpacking, revisiting—that’s the process.”

On Site

Along with direct career experiences—internships, externships, or job shadowing opportunities—students should be given structured ways to reflect and connect experiences with their targeted career skills. The University of Minnesota offers an optional online course for students while they are abroad. Called Global Identity: Connecting Your International Experience to Your Future, the 1-credit course was developed in partnership with career advisers and includes a focus on discussing skills from the experience in future job interviews, says Christine Anderson, PhD, academic director of the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center.

At Bryant, Saslawski focuses students on daily cognitive journaling during three-week study abroad programs, providing prompts that connect certain skills with what she calls “critical incidents”—specific learning experiences that occur in the moment while abroad. 

Upon Return

Once students return from their study abroad program, reflection activities should be structured and focused on specific skills. “Students tend to compartmentalize things,” says Reza. “You don’t need to compartmentalize the study abroad experience—you can translate it into terminology that has value to employers.”

At Bryant, returning students take a second self-assessment to track growth in certain areas, while at Evergreen, returning students “literally draw a line” on a sheet of paper and connect their outcomes with the competencies identified by NACE and other sources. “As they’re reflecting, they’re going through the process of making those connections,” Smith says.

Postexperience reflection also presents an opportunity to inspire further skill development, according to McShane. “What we’d like to do is encourage students to continue to grow,” he says. “Learning is a lifelong journey.”

Postgraduation

Alumni of international education experiences can help demonstrate to current students how their education abroad experiences impacted their professional lives. Consider conducting surveys to “understand whether alumni are using what they learned in education abroad,” says Reza.

Alumni can also play key roles in enriching programming. Fostering connections with those living internationally may lead to internship or job shadowing opportunities for current students participating in study abroad.

The End—and the Beginning

 The final stage in the cycle is also the first: planning. Education abroad program leaders should reflect and review data to strengthen the case for career-building skills.

“The end of the cycle for me is follow-up research on what is happening on the part of the institution,” Reza says.

At Babson, that’s meant partnering with the Center for Career Development to see whether students in study abroad participate more frequently in internships, achieve higher job placement, and receive greater compensation. While such data show “cause and effect, not correlation,” he cautions, they still can shift perceptions for students.

“Students felt study abroad was an impediment for success—if I go abroad, it will delay my internship search,” Reza says. “We were able to debunk those myths.”  •

 


Partners for Programs

Much as teamwork and collaboration are essential job skills, they also play key roles in ensuring that education abroad experiences focus on skill development. The following are among key stakeholders and partners.

Faculty. Faculty can guide students to connect to skills and reflect on them during and after programming—if they are properly supported. “Have some sort of structure with deliverables,” Saslawski says. “Make sure it doesn’t create extra work. We told [faculty] we would read the assignments—they loved that.”

At Babson, faculty are given a short list of questions to use in engaging study abroad returnees about their experience so they don’t simply say, “It was great; it changed my life,” Reza says.

Career services. At many institutions, career advisers can help students translate study abroad experiences into marketable skills in interviews and résumés through counseling or activities. They also can provide advice to faculty and program leaders. At the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center, career advisers gave workshops to faculty and staff on “folding career skill development into orientations, debriefing sessions, and syllabi,” says Anderson.

At Pitt, the career development office plays a part in coordinating the stakeholder interviews that help define targeted skills. Doing so also aids career advisers and participating faculty in speaking about and reinforcing these skills in similar ways.

Alumni offices. Working with alumni offices provides opportunities to identify past participants in study abroad who can speak to its benefits in their current careers, as well as alumni living internationally who may be able to provide current study abroad students with internship or job shadowing opportunities during their programs.

Senior leadership. As with other elements of internationalization, education abroad can be framed as an essential element of broader institutional objectives around career development. At Babson, for example, the mission is to create entrepreneurial leaders with a global mindset—one that can lead to “blind spots” without international experiences, Reza argues.

“Articulate strategies that tie into the mission,” he says.

Beyond campus. The network effect can extend to career networking. In the greater Boston area, several institutions have partnered on Lessons from Abroad events that bring together students from multiple institutions to discuss their study abroad experiences and to work together on résumés or other career objectives.

It’s also helpful to look to organizations such as NACE that have done the groundwork to identify career skills. “We think it’s really important to use what’s out there and what’s been studied,” Saslawski says. “People think they need to reinvent everything, and that’s not necessary.”

 


 

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.

About NAFSA

NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA serves the needs of more than 10,000 members and international educators worldwide at more than 3,500 institutions, in over 150 countries.

NAFSA membership provides you with unmatched access to best-in-class programs, critical updates, and resources to professionalize your practice. Members gain unrivaled opportunities to partner with experienced international education leaders.