“There is no down side to studying abroad, only benefits.”
So says Leah Miller, international programs coordinator at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, which is known for being one of the leaders in study abroad.
What exactly is it about studying abroad that is so valuable? According to Miller, “Students develop hard skills and soft skills, both personal and professional. In terms of hard skills, they learn foreign languages, cultural information, geographic information and academic facts and figures. The soft skills—the intangibles—are even more important: character development, an understanding of America’s place in the world, an understanding of oneself. And probably the biggest benefit students bring back is confidence. Students who study abroad feel confident that they can go anywhere and meet anyone and be able to handle it.”
College students have been spending their junior years abroad for a long time, but in recent years as the economy has become increasingly globalized, participation has increased. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), since 1991-92 the number of students receiving credit for study abroad has risen 145 percent. Although nationwide only one percent of college students study internationally, those vying for the most competitive post-college jobs are wise to get this experience on their résumés.
According to Leslie Campbell, Vice President of Worldwide Procurement for Dell Inc., “A global perspective is an absolute must have. We talk about globalization in everything that we do. You would be hard-pressed to find a place to work that isn’t impacted by the global marketplace, even if you are operating only in the United States.” Campbell also emphasizes the importance of learning another language. “I would strongly encourage students to pursue a second language. You need this to compete globally. When you start meeting your international colleagues you realize that very few non-U.S. professionals speak only one language.”
Given the importance of global experience, students often wonder which country or countries to select. The answer from most experts is: it doesn’t matter. What’s important is living in another culture, meeting different kinds of people and stepping outside of your comfort zone. Gretchen Effgen, a 2003 graduate of London Business School who has both studied and worked overseas, says, “Go anywhere; you’ll always be learning. The more doors you open, the more you realize you can deal with various issues and jobs and positions. Just go for it!”
Leslie Campbell agrees: “I’ve traveled to every continent and most major countries and there are none that I wouldn’t be happy to go and live in for some period of time. It would be a great professional and personal experience. Asia is exploding—that is a wonderful place to go—but there is no reason you couldn’t get a beneficial experience by studying in Europe or anyplace else.”
Miller confirms that Asian countries are definitely growing in popularity with college students. Not surprisingly, many students are choosing to go to China. Alex Macchi, a junior at Northwestern University, decided to spend eight weeks studying in Beijing last summer. She is planning a future career in international business and knew that knowledge of China would be invaluable. “I took a class on Chinese Political Economics that was really interesting, but I really learned the most from the Chinese students I met. I was surprised by how much they knew about the world and the U.S.”
According to Leslie Campbell, Alex did the right thing to maximize her experience while abroad: she networked. Campbell says, “The international population of students you meet while studying abroad, your colleagues, your friends—those networks will serve you well for the rest of your professional life.”
Leah Miller adds that networking is also one of the best ways to prepare for an overseas experience. Her top advice to anyone considering going to a foreign country is to contact students who have studied in that country or who grew up there. “Talk to your peers and ask detailed questions,” she advises.
But no matter how much pre-information you gather before going abroad, Campbell reminds students to “go with an open mind. Avoid assuming, expecting or hoping that when you go overseas everything is going to be just the way it is at home, wherever home is. The whole reason you’re going is because it’s not like home. It is a mistake to assume that everybody is going to perceive things the way you do. You need to understand that when people come from different backgrounds. Everything is going to be different.”
Of course, even with the increased cultural understanding and personal and professional benefits that studying abroad can develop in a young person, experienced expatriates still recommended bringing a few comforts from home. When asked what she wishes she had done differently for her experience in China, Alex Macchi doesn’t hesitate to respond: “I wish I had brought more granola bars.”