Studying abroad during my college career was non-negotiable. I was bitten by the travel bug at a young age. My parents exposed me to a number of different cultures: we had spent time in Central America and Europe, in countries such as Panama, Switzerland and Italy. So, by the time I enrolled in college, I was eager to learn about the study abroad programs offered at my university. Many of my friends often expressed that studying abroad was too expensive or were unable to commit for one reason or another, but my desire and determination never wavered. And, it paid off. Touching down in London as a college student sparked a whole new feeling — and an entirely new experience very different from my childhood travels. I jumped at the opportunity to take an intercultural communications class at my new school in London, the University of Westminster. It was just the subject I needed to sharpen my skills in this area and to position myself for the possibility of an international career.
In addition to quenching my wanderlust, my persistence to study abroad stemmed from the hope that employers would one day see the value in my international experience. While the numbers show to be increasing every year, college students who study abroad make up less than 2% of college enrollment across the nation as of the 2016-2017 academic year. Simply put, job candidates with this type of international experience are proven a rarity in the U.S. talent pool. It was a surprising realization to have learned that one can gain even more professionally translatable skills living and studying in a foreign country than at their home institution. In fact, there are three major skills that I observed other study-abroad-scholars cultivating from my personal experience spending a semester in London. These skills undoubtedly bring enrichment to any position applied for and to the workplace culture as a whole.
Heightened Cultural Awareness
First, study abroad experience gives way to heightened cultural awareness. Studying abroad is about gaining practical experience in interacting with diverse groups of people in diverse situations. For example, my intercultural communications class often comprised of vibrant discussions with fellow classmates who were from countries such as Holland, Portugal, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland or Spain. In learning about my classmates’ colorful backgrounds, I understand that just because something is different does not mean it is “wrong.” My instructor encouraged us to respect, celebrate, and discuss our differences and how each of our unique experiences have shaped who we are today. This exposure to different perspectives and experiences allowed me to develop an expanded consciousness of the world. I feel better equipped in the realm of cross-cultural communication and have acquired a greater appreciation for diversity. Consequently, when placed in a professional setting, I am more perceptive to new ideas and open-minded about those that may differ from my own.
Spending time with talent recruiters at Nonprofit HR, I understand that it is important to seek candidates that will integrate into and enrich workplace cultures. Candidates with experience studying abroad will not only help maintain diversity of thought but also diversify an organization’s talent pool by bringing varied skills to the table. The cultural and environmental awareness garnered from travel instills greater resourcefulness, a skill easily generated when confronted with the unknown. In essence, they have not just “talked-the-talk” but have actually “walked-the-walk.” Plus, acquiring talent in the area of intercultural and interpersonal communication means collecting candidates that are articulate communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and observant team-members.
“Some of the strongest candidates I’ve had have studied abroad,” said Nena Gray, Nonprofit HR Talent Acquisition Consultant.
Second, the ability to adapt to new situations is a skill that is continuously challenged when living in a foreign country. Once I fostered a greater awareness of my surroundings, I was then able to read situations with more clarity and adjust my actions accordingly in order to interact effectively. While it may not be cars driving on the opposite side of the road (learning to look both ways before crossing as a child really paid off), I am more flexible and feel better equipped to deal with uncertainty. I have no doubt that I have gained practical experience tapping into my intuition and acting upon it.
I must also add that candidates with international experience search for continuous engagement in the workplace. I personally have gained confidence in my ability to succeed in unfamiliar environments with these skills and have become very open about sharing my experiences with others. Thus, what I look for in a potential employer is a place where I can apply and expand these skills in a professional setting.
Growth from Discomfort
Last, my study abroad experience helped me understand the importance of moving beyond my comfort zone. I have learned that real growth, whether it be professional, social, or personal, lies outside of the confines of my comfort zone. It is only through challenging yourself that we are able to discover and employ our true capabilities. In this way, candidates with study abroad experience gain a real-world sense of their abilities and are not afraid to take action when given the opportunity. With that being said, I believe it is important for employers to recognize and connect with the employees that have had this broader experience. In doing so, employers encourage the growth of more global-minded organizations that are better able to face competitors in the international economy.
Now that I have outlined why employers should value and favor international experience when looking for additions to their team, I will follow with how they can take advantage of the study abroad experience of new hires. Consider the following:
-Conduct Lunch and Learns: allow the new hire a time to present their experiences and skills – focusing on the most important things they learned and the benefits that it brings to the workplace and job-specific activities such as communicating/networking with specific cultures, etc.
-Encourage collaboration to keep them engaged: living and studying abroad can mean that they are used to a high stimulation environment and by previously having to build relationships within entirely new cultural contexts, they understand the value of connection.
-Provide more learning opportunities: while immersed in a foreign environment, you really do learn something new every day. Entertain this spark for knowledge and provide these employees with opportunities to engage their mind or try something new, such as allowing the employee to offer assistance to a separate function for the day to better their understanding of their role within the operation and progression of the organization as a whole.
Studying abroad has traversed all areas of my life and as I am beginning my professional career, I will carry these invaluable experiences, lessons, and skills with me. I only hope to seek an employer that will understand and appreciate their value as much as I do.
Lindsey Otto is a UA Study Abroad Alum who originally wrote this article for Nonprofit HR: https://www.nonprofithr.com/3-reasons-why-employers-should-strongly-cons...