This article was written by Ipsita Dey, a finalist in our 2017 Fall Essay Contest. Ipsita recently graduated from UCLA with a major in Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics and a minor in Anthropology. For her undergraduate thesis, Ipsita conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Manchester, England and studied post-traumatic processes of recovery among domestic violence survivors in South Asian immigrant communities. Ipsita enjoys candid conversations on world religions, documentary film-making, and interpretive dance. She is currently working as a qualitative market researcher in Washington D.C.
Using Your Study Abroad Experience for Career Development
If you were lucky enough to study abroad during your undergraduate years, you can probably tell stories of experiences that changed your life, people who changed your perspectives, and places that inspired your personal development. My quarter abroad in Dublin, Ireland was more than “just a trip to Europe” for me. It was the first time I left my home, flew across the world, and entered the unknown. The struggles and challenges of independent living abroad helped me learn to trust myself and my instincts. I learned teamwork, responsibility, and flexibility; I practiced courage and fearlessness as I grew my self-confidence and self-esteem. My time abroad made me comfortable with uncomfortability.
After I bored more than enough people with my recycled adventure stories, I thought to myself: what if I could tell my study abroad story in a way that conveyed the significance of my personal development and character growth? If your study abroad experience was like mine, the skills you gained abroad are highly applicable in the workplace environment, and employers are looking for the fresh perspectives and inspiration you gained while traveling abroad. Once you recognize your skills, identify their applicability in the “real world,” and find the keywords that pique the interest of recruiters and interviewers, it’ll be hard for anyone to deny that studying abroad truly was a life changing experience.
Skill 1: Communication
If you can ask a sweet, Czech (non-English speaking) grandma for a triple-cheese, no onion, extra tomato, whole wheat sandwich in the rural outskirts of Prague, you know how to communicate. You assessed the situation, knew what you wanted, and conveyed your thoughts and ideas to someone who did not share your language or culture. You crossed cultural and language barriers, distilled complex ideas into simple terms, and communicated those points with someone who you shared almost nothing in common with, demonstrating initiative and perseverance. That sounds like: business pitching and presenting, speaking with clients, managing sales, and networking.
Skill 2: Foreign Languages
It seems obvious that a second (or even third or fourth) language would be useful in any business setting. Fluently speaking another language is important for cultural competency and communication with foreign clients, business partners, research collaborators – the list goes on. But more importantly, bilingual abilities improve cognition and build logical reasoning, comprehension, and critical thinking skills. As a bilingual speaker, you’ve developed the ability to multi-task while switching between languages and cultural metaphors. If you learned to speak Spanish in rural Spain while trying to conduct research on Mediterranean coastal waters, Spanish language acquisition demonstrates your adaptability, commitment to passion, and dedication. So even if you are “only” proficient in your study abroad host country’s language, or you learned a lesser-spoken language like Irish Gaelic, your flexible cognitive abilities are still unique and highly applicable in a fast-paced work environment.
Skill 3: Project Management
If you can arrange a weekend trip (including hotel accommodations, restaurant bookings, transportation, and schedule planning) for five different friends, all of whom are on a strict financial budget, you know how to conduct and follow through on complicated logistical planning. You kept multiple schedules, timelines, and budgets in order, catering to the needs of a group while still demonstrating the ability to make educated executive decisions. You engaged in teamwork as a leader, and successfully planned what most would consider a logistical nightmare. Project management is the disciplined art of devising a strategic plan to achieve specific, pre- determined goals. And that time you planned a weekend trip to London counts!
These are just a few ideas to get you started on rethinking your study abroad experience from a career development perspective. If you work on identifying what you did while abroad and how you learned from it, you’ll start to see the applicability of your skills everywhere:
Did you Instagram, Facebook, or blog your study abroad adventure on social media? If so, you generated online content, marketed it to a demographic that was interested in your experiences, and increased public interest in a topic that you are passionate about.
Did you advise other students from your university who were interested in participating in the same study abroad program? If so, you thought critically and objectively about pros and cons of your program and mentored other students. You used your experiences to inspire and educate others.
The possibilities are as endless as the stories you tell of your experiences abroad. Now, that one time I sang a few Irish folk songs and shared a pizza with taxi drivers from Cork, Ireland is more than dinner table fodder, it’s an opportunity for me to share my journey in personal development. It just goes to show that you can make the most of your study abroad experiences, even after you’ve come home.