When pursued in a thoughtful and creative manner, studying abroad can be both a life-changing and career-enhancing experience.
Dan, a Duke University junior, majoring in economics and computer science, is currently studying in Japan. As a sophomore, he was as confused as most students about his ultimate career direction, but he was gravitating towards international business and had become intrigued by Japan, despite having taken no language classes. What Dan lacked in focus, he made up for in attitude. He was determined to become fluent in Japanese, so he decided to study abroad for an entire year, finding himself an apartment and involving himself in the local community.
Already Dan is seeing the benefits of his "total immersion" approach to language. Business people have commented in impressed tones "Wow, you speak fluent English, French and Japanese…We really need people that international. Gap-bridgers are a rare commodity."
Dan's efforts to learn Japanese have also helped him develop an increased facility for empathy, which he believes has become part of his personality. He realized early on that when you want to communicate despite a language barrier, you have to focus like a laser on what the person is trying to say. Learning how to be empathetic has helped Dan in his volunteer work at a local school, where he interacts with a group of eighty Japanese ten-year-olds. As he says "You are communicating on the most basic level, and making the effort to pick up your student's meaning really hones your ability to judge people and express yourself to them."
Another key advantage of Dan's study abroad is the development of maturity and self-awareness. Dan is relishing the freedom and responsibility that comes from living by himself, in his own apartment, by his own rules. "My schedule is that from 8:50am to 3:00pm every day, I'm in class, speaking Japanese. After that, Tokyo is my oyster. If I have, or can make, the money to do it, I can do anything I please. Even if I just go to class and come back and do homework, the potentiality there is intoxicating." Dan loves the fact that he's in charge of his own learning, and reports that he has the urge to read like crazy - everything from biographies to molecular biology textbooks to fiction.
Clearly Dan's learning is intense, but it happens so naturally that he's often not even aware of it. Tasks like finding a place to live, buying furniture and taking care of legal requirements may have been difficult at the time - particularly given that he's not around other American students - but he now regards them simply as things he had to do. Dan describes it as follows "I think one of the great things you realize is that nothing is particularly difficult unless you don't do it. As soon as you get started, the task becomes easier, and by the time you're done, it's very easy indeed."
Too few students studying abroad allow themselves the freedom to try really difficult things. If they did, they would discover a resilience that would benefit them throughout their lives. Time spent abroad should be a time of new insights and perspectives. As Dan's story so clearly demonstrates, this learning can happen quite naturally - if students are willing to fully engage with their environment.
Shelia Curan is the Fannie Mitchell Executive Director of the Duke University Career Center. Her book, coauthored with Suzanne Greenwald, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, was published by Ten Speed Press in May 2006. Sheila also writes a column for Business Week, entitled "Curran on Careers." She is married to Joe Curran, whom she met while he was studying abroad in England.
Return to the Nov/Dec issue of International Educator.