An odd thing is happening on college campuses today. In an age of shaky finances and soaring student debt loads, to the point where many question the very liberal arts model, a new consensus is emerging to expand higher education in a very expensive way. Money be damned, a growing number of schools have begun to push studies abroad as a vital part of the college experience.
Even more exciting, at least among those of us who advocate travel as a valuable learning experience, it’s starting to work. According to the Association of International Educators, the number of students studying abroad is only going up.
Students are generally enthusiastic, no surprise when the prize is a trip to some of the world’s most exotic locations and dynamic cities. Getting buy-in from their parents, though, has always been something different. Travel has historically been a tough sell as part of the college experience, often striking parents as a way to subsidize booze-fueled shenanigans in the guise of higher education. (No new complaint.) American students’ notorious love of international drinking ages hasn’t helped that impression any, nor Hollywood’s cottage industry dedicated to vulnerable youths thrown at the hands of villains abroad.
So when students have called home asking for some extra cash to cover airfare for a summer on Santorini or a semester within driving distance of Machu Picchu, Mom and Dad have traditionally been reluctant. Today many have expected the spiraling costs of a college education to drive parents even further out of the travel business, not unreasonable given how many families have had to rely on financial aid simply to make tuition.
Yet the opposite has been happening, and a lot of that has had to do with the enthusiasm of employers. Today’s term abroad isn’t just about personal growth anymore but also about real, salable skills that students can use to market themselves in a still-tough job market.
That’s great for students, because the more opportunities they have to put some stamps in their passports, the better off they’ll be in the long run.
Yet one of the biggest questions remains how students can demonstrate the value of their time abroad once they’ve returned home. Despite increasing acceptance of this idea both in academia and employment, many students and international travelers in general are frustrated when it comes time to sell their experience on a resume.
It’s what Lisa Calevi of the University of Oregon’s Global Education Oregon program has called “the very timely question” for educators and any other advocates of long term travel.
“Today’s students are very pragmatic, and their education is costing them a small fortune," she said. "[But] studying abroad is not a luxury; it’s very much a part of a 21st century education. This is absolutely the question that professionals in the field are asking themselves, how do we get students to understand that there is an intrinsic value to studying abroad?”
Students should start with diversity.
Far from being an empty slogan, modern employers aggressively recruit for talent that can work with a wide variety of cultures and demands. Most applicants will claim this ability on their resume, but students who’ve studied abroad have invaluable real-world experiences with living, learning and integrating with other cultures.
It lets an employer know that this is someone who can sympathize with another person’s way of thinking and even adapt their own.
Almost as importantly, going on a term abroad sends the message that the student is the kind of person who would do something like that in the first place, someone who would seek out a challenge and create opportunity for personal growth. Travel is virtually never required for a student, so getting on that plane is the kind of proactive mindset that speaks to managers all across the country.
Someone who is applying for a job can write persuasively about how they are the kind of person who will stay late, learn an extra scripting language or read up on the client over dinner, because he's the kind of person who embraces an extra challenge.
“Corporate America recognizes that there are skills and competencies that are developed by even the single act of deciding to go study abroad,” Calevi said. You may have a better sense, for example, of recognizing non-verbal cues and reading body language.
"When you don’t speak a language and you find yourself abroad you depend on those kinds of skills, those signals to find what’s being communicated to you,” Calevi said.
The idea of the wholly local job is, increasingly, becoming a far off fairy tale in this day and age. Supply chains for even the most local business have gone global, and companies recognize that the students they’re hiring now very likely will have to deal with partnerships all across the world. That means bridging divides of culture and languages, not to mention being the kind of person who can learn ahead of time where not to wear white to a meeting (China) or under what circumstances not to cross their legs (Arab culture considers pointing the sole of your shoe quite rude).
Vacationers miss these cues in a few hectic weeks. Expats, even temporary ones, don’t.
For students looking to highlight these experiences on a resume or cover letter even small anecdotes can go a long way to conveying meaningful personal growth. Telling the story about a local birthday party or learning to barter for shorts at the market might seem like little more than cocktail banter, but it broadcasts problem-solving and relationship building in any environment.
That's exactly what a 21st Century employer needs.
There are a lot of good reasons to study abroad. Now here’s one more: it pays off. Literally.