Given the multitude of ways in which students can demonstrate the career value of education abroad, it may seem counter-intuitive to say that such experiences can potentially be a "career bust." Unfortunately, it happens all the time, because too many students don't have a true education abroad experience; they have a U.S. experience abroad.
Consider the stories of two juniors from the same college, both of whom spent a semester in Florence, Italy, but on programs sponsored by different universities. Although each story incorporates experiences drawn from many students, I'll call these students Jake and Lisa.
Jake had studied some Italian at college, but had little self-confidence about his language ability. He wrote in his application essay that he was looking forward to gaining a different perspective, having never travelled outside the United States, and claimed he had a particular interest in Italy since his great-grandfather hailed from a small village in Tuscany. Jake chose a program where he would have fun and feel comfortable: living with students from his college, and participating in many pre-arranged trips around Italy. He calculated that he would be able to get the experience of Italy and complete some of his curriculum requirements without having to change the ways in which he liked to study, since the professors would all be from the United States and the teaching in English. Most important, he would likely retain his high grade point average. Upon arriving in Italy, Jake found it very easy to settle in to a life not significantly different from his life in the United States. He never did get time to visit his great-grandfather's village.
Lisa was equally shaky in Italian when she first decided to go abroad, but determined that Florence would provide an avenue to fluency, while also allowing her to pursue her love for art history, one of her majors. In the semester before she left for Italy, Lisa took an advanced Italian class, in preparation for taking all her study abroad classes in Italian with Italian students. She chose a program where she would be staying with an Italian family. The first month of Lisa's program, she wondered if she'd done the right thing: she felt out of her depth, and isolated by the unfamiliar environment. Classes were hard, and she fretted about getting good enough grades to pass. Her diligence and persistence, however, paid off, and she ended her time in Florence having learned as much about herself and what she could do, as about art history.
So far, so good. Lisa and Jake both enjoyed their experiences in Florence and will doubtless consider their time abroad one of the high points of their education. But what might look the same on paper, can cause a very different result in an interview. Consider the following scenario:
Lisa and Jake were both excellent students with good grades and impressive extra-curricular achievements. Senior year, they decided to apply to the same consulting company and were interviewed by the same person. As luck would have it, the interviewer had spent a year working in Italy. He immediately picked out study abroad in Florence on the students' resumes and talked to each about their experiences, changing from interviewing in English to interviewing in Italian. Lisa spent much of her interview talking about her interests and passions, in the process establishing an excellent rapport with her future employer. Jake's interview was very different. Upon discovering that Jake's Italian was rudimentary, the employer began to wonder about what he'd really learned through study abroad, and questioned the quality of the other experiences listed on his resume. In this situation, listing study abroad on his resume actually had a negative effect on Jake's candidacy.
If Lisa and Jake had encountered an interviewer who had studied in Italy with Jake's approach, Lisa would probably still have had the advantage. Jake could certainly have used study abroad in Italy to establish rapport with the interviewer. However, Lisa's ability to use job-related examples from her Italian experiences would likely have trumped Jake's ability to relate well to the interviewer. Substance matters.
Students apply for education abroad programs with very different motivations. They may fall into the Jake group: "I want an experience where I know what to expect. I want to have fun with my friends in a foreign country, and I don't want classes to be too hard. I really want an enjoyable break from the rigors of school."Alternatively, they may be part of the Lisa group: "I want to experience and study in a foreign country in a way that allows me to gain perspective on that country, the United States, and myself. I am prepared to put myself outside my comfort zone, in order to communicate in a foreign language most of the time. I am also willing to experience different ways of living, studying and working without passing value judgements based on my upbringing." Most students will fall somewhere between the Jake and the Lisa group - and so will the career value of their experiences!
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.