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How Study Abroad Supports Graduate Employability

by AIFS Study Abroad
study abroad employment career

Martin Tillman, President of Global Career Compass, writes about the impact of education abroad experiences on student career development. For the 2015 NAFSA Conference, he wrote a piece about how employers value the skills learned during study abroad, and how universities can better align career services with study abroad services to further help students. We are pleased to share it here:

We’ve recently witnessed a spate of new books authored by policy wonks which aim to re-examine the mission of the university in the United States and whether we need to “unbundle” how we educate students. Their titles are provocative, like The End of College, and they consider rising tuition and debt which burden large numbers of students and their families. Although we’ve left the worst of the recession behind us –especially with a sharp rebound in the unemployment figures which always favor job seekers with college diplomas – there is a lot of attention being given to new thinking regarding the linkage of higher education to the global workforce and the so-called “return on investment” of a college education.

What does this challenge to the traditional value –and return on investment -of a college degree have to do with the study abroad field?  In my view, quite a lot.  For decades, students going abroad for study, work, or service was viewed as invaluable, and an end unto itself.  There was little attention given to all but the intrinsic rewards to the student: gaining a wider world view, maturing through the usual ups and downs of being on your own in a new cultural environment, learning how to fend for oneself in a setting with different “rules” and expectations, and, of course, fulfilling a course requirement or learning to speak a foreign language. In recent years, the rapid rise in the number of students studying abroad has resulted in greater attention to the deeper and broader reasons which now attract students to international experiential learning – in the classroom or in the community.

The unquestioned intrinsic rewards notwithstanding, these are three of the most consequential extrinsic outcomes of studying abroad:

  • Employers Do Value Education Abroad

Over the past ten years, numerous studies and surveys, both American and international) have all come to the same conclusion: employers value the practical skills and competencies which students can develop through their education abroad experience. They see critical skills in applicants which can only be gained from international experience: facility; adaptability, cross-cultural sensitivity, intellectual flexibility and political awareness, to name a few core skills. In the global economy, there is a need for workers who understand how to perform their jobs in a rapidly changing international landscape.

  • Universities and Employers are Forming New Partnerships

Largely driven by a need to match talent to the requirements of their workplaces, employers are more often seeking ways to pro-actively connect with students on campus.  Sometimes, this involves directly funding new curricular programs or supporting internship programs with direct hires of graduates as an outcome of participation in a directed course of study (as in the STEM fields).  Both KPMG, based in Chicago, and Infosys, based in India, have devised highly competitive global internship programs aligned with their need for talented graduates with specific skill sets.

  • Building an International Toolkit is an Asset in a Job Search

I frequently use the metaphor of creating a “toolkit” to describe how students can draw upon varied experiences, as needed, as they begin their job search.  For example, along with a résumé, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile, students need to showcase and articulate stories – those aspects of their international experience that depict the critical incidents that allowed them to learn how to become more resourceful, creative, purposeful, and persistent.

Based on my research and outreach to dozens of colleges and universities for the AIFS publication Campus Best Practices Supporting Education Abroad & Student Career Development (2014), I found few examples of an intentionally designed model which integrates campus study abroad and career service advising.

Unfortunately, the norm on most campuses is for students to receive their advising in a fragmented fashion. Their administrative questions are managed by study abroad advisors and their career development questions are addressed by a career counselor.  As a result, a student may not be prepared to address the linkage of a program’s learning outcomes with the potential career impact.

I am not one to overlook the importance of sending students to study abroad because the experience can re-shape their life, change their understanding of what it means to be an American citizen, or provide an opportunity to travel abroad for the first time. But the pace and depth of globalization, the force of geo-political challenges, and the fragility of the labor market at home and abroad challenge students to carefully think through the implications of the choices they make during their years of college.  One of the most consequential choices a student will make is whether or not to study abroad, where and for how long.  This decision unquestionably will influence a job search, choice of residence, type of assignment, and long-term planning for further study.  We know that study abroad will impact the prospects of students landing that first job after graduation, especially if they are careful, prepared and well-advised about articulating to employers how lessons learned from their time abroad strengthened their capacity to enter the workforce.

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