Studying abroad while in college can be an amazing experience. I spent six months in Santiago, Chile in college and it was one of the best things I did during my four years.
Studying abroad is such a life-changing experience that is often difficult to put into words. Employers, however, are looking for you to articulate exactly what you gained or learned from being overseas. When some employers see study abroad experience on a resume their mind automatically assumes study abroad = a four-month pub crawl in Europe. Here’s how to avoid that misconception:
Make it a significant experience
While a week-long trip to a foreign country over spring break or seeing the sites with your (American) best friend is probably really fun, the best abroad experiences for professional and personal growth are those that are of at least a few months in length and/or include significant learning experiences. A two-week trip to all the tourist sites in a particular country is a much different experience than a two-week study trip to the same location to take classes, meet with local professionals or students and immerse yourself in local traditions and culture.
Take some responsibility for your experience
When I arrived in Santiago at 1 a.m., I did not have a place to stay or a contact to call. I made my way to a semi-shady hostel and from there, spent weeks finding a family that would take me in for the semester and learning how to navigate the city and the culture. It was scary being in a foreign country where my closest friends were people I had met a few weeks prior in the hostel dining room.
My program provided very few social activities and opportunities to integrate with the local community. It was up to me to find ways to connect with new people and find a sense of belonging.
The independence required for my study abroad program built my self-confidence. When I returned from being abroad, I felt I could conquer anything. That confidence will show when you interact with employers. Continue taking chances when you are back on campus to maintain that I-can-do-anything attitude.
Select a study abroad program that will challenge you
As I enrolled in classes at a Chilean university, I quickly found my proficiency in Spanish was sub-par, to say the least. My first weeks (ok, months) were spent completely bewildered as I tried to speak with native Chileans. (Good thing for me they were extremely understanding, patient and helpful).
Fumbling through basic conversations with my host family, classmates, professors, taxi drivers, and pretty much everyone I interacted with was often embarassing and frustrating. But the benefit was that I became better at problem-solving, asking for help, taking risks, understanding other cultures and being persistent. These are great skills to discuss with a potential employer.
If you can, choose a study abroad country that differs from the U.S. in culture as much as possible. Consider some programs in less-popular study abroad locales. You will stand out more during the interview process because an employer probably hasn’t already heard tons about your study abroad destination from other students.
Everyone has different levels of comfort with going abroad. And, everyone’s study abroad experience will differ. Spend some time figuring out where your comfort level is and make sure you stretch it as much as possible when choosing a program, both in location selection and level of independence required.
Continue networking and career exploration while abroad
Just because you are in another country doesn’t mean your networking and exploration efforts should go on hiatus. Once you get settled in a bit, consider volunteering (working with kids is great if you’re trying to learn a new language!), initiating an informal job shadow, conducting informational interviews and, depending on work authorization and visa issues, looking into internship opportunities. You’ll gain the same benefits you would have if you did these things in the U.S., but with an added global twist. This is definitely a selling point, as many companies are increasingly looking for global and cross-cultural competence.
Make your study abroad experiences work for you in an interview
If you are seeking out networking and career exploration opportunities while abroad and choose a study abroad destination that challenges you, you will have meaningful stories to share when speaking with employers. Before an interview, think about specific situations in which you used or demonstrated the skills they are seeking for the position(s) you are applying to. Remember that it can be a story borrowed from your personal life, not necessarily a classroom or workplace scenario.
Imagine an employer asks about a time you used problem-solving skills. If you embarked on a week-long backpacking trip through Patagonia with little wilderness experience and found yourself in a dangerous predicament where only your problem-solving, teamwork and optimism got you through, you have a compelling story to share that will vividly illustrate for the employer how you have used those skills in the past. It also shows you did something other than frequent the local bar scene.
When talking about your study abroad experience, always focus on specific interactions, moments, people and events instead of talking generically about how valuable the overall experience was. While abroad, be sure to have fun, but also build in meaningful experiences that you can share with potential employers- if you can effectively convey the personal, academic and professional lessons you learned while abroad, highlighting the study abroad experience will make you a memorable job candidate.
Kelly is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she assists undergraduate business students with all aspects of their career development. Kelly received her masters degree in Higher Education/Student Personnel Administration from New York University, and her bachelors degree from UW-Madison, where she majored in Political Science and Women’s Studies. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, LinkedIn or BrazenCareerist.