Now that students have settled into classes, study abroad fairs are taking place on campuses across the country throughout the fall. Students will be bombarded with food, photos and friendly faces encouraging them to go abroad. For most college students in their first or second years, the allure of studying abroad can be intoxicating. That's because students tend to initially focus on the "abroad" part, a word that conjures up any number of romantic personal impressions based on movies, travel books and firsthand reports from friends and family members who have vacationed abroad. Eclipsed by the glamour and intrigue of it all is the "study" part.
But make no mistake about it, studying abroad is a serious undertaking. It challenges students on a personal level. It will have an impact on their college career. It costs money. Deciding whether to go, therefore, is a very big decision and one that should not be made lightly. In fact, I recommend that students -- and their parents -- start thinking about study abroad in freshman year to take as much time as possible to consider the pros and cons.
So why do people study abroad? In research I conducted for my recently released book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad, students who had studied abroad in the past five years cited these top three reasons: experience another culture/country, travel and personal growth. Secondary reasons include career prospects and marketability, learning a language and recommendations from a friend.But when I followed up with employers across a vast spectrum of industries and sectors, asking them what they liked most about potential applicants who had studied abroad, they cited very practical applications of the experience:
- Creative problem solving experience in unfamiliar situations
- Adaptability within culturally diverse environments
- Excellent listening and communication skills
- Practical knowledge of a specific culture and language
With the exception of language skills, these benefits fall into the all-important "soft skills" category growing in importance in the workplace. There is no doubt that studying abroad enhances a student's resume, boosting her chances to impress a potential employer with her global outlook. But how do students -- and their parents -- decide which program is best?
It's a big question and one that requires research and plenty of sifting because there's a great deal of information out there. There are many factors to consider, such as cost, the time to go and for how long, where to go and how best to prepare to get the most out of the experience. Moreover, all programs are not equal.
To help students get the most out of an experience abroad, programs should require intense language and academic preparation, research projects and presentations. Whether your program lasts three weeks or a full year, students should begin with significant cultural and intellectual preparation well before leaving campus, and conclude with an involved reentry and reintegration course.
For students interested in reaping the rewards described above by employers, they'll need to choose a program that has a solid reputation for academic rigor and cross-cultural outreach. These programs should have entrance requirements and not just be open to anyone who can pay. Ideally they are integrated into your academic curriculum. Here are some specific program aspects to look for:
Local language coursework. Content classes (history, literature, business) taken in languages other than English demonstrate and improve language proficiency.
Diverse student bodies. Programs that attract participants from all over the world will be richer culturally. They also foster greater proficiency in cross-cultural teamwork, thus better preparing students for similar work environments.
Regionally relevant content. Going abroad to study in a specific geographic and cultural context can enhance academic studies. Ideally, programs designed around a specific topic will include introductions to area experts and access to local information sources and perspectives.
Curricula-driven study abroad. Some programs bring global students together to work on a regional problem, such as water use rights, fair trade practices or cultural preservation. Working as a global team in an academic context is excellent preparation for global jobs.
Locations matters. Prospective employers are increasingly interested in where applicants studied abroad. Branching out beyond the traditional European destinations and into countries such as China, Brazil, India, Mexico or Turkey, for example, signals an enhanced awareness of growing global economies -- and a direct link to the places many organizations are expanding and growing.
In my talks on campuses, many students express an interest in "just having fun" while studying abroad, so they're planning on taking a few classes pass/fail and traveling around. They want to know, is that so wrong? It all depends on what the objective is. College is a time for fun and travel, yes, but it's primarily for becoming career-ready and developing skills that will lead to employment upon graduation. Study abroad offers students an opportunity to do both.
There is so much to consider when choosing a study abroad program. That's why I teamed up with Dr. Allan Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education, and Sir Cyril Taylor, Founder of AIFS, to write a practical how-to guide, A Student Guide to Study Abroad. It's packed with practical information, 100 easy-to-follow tips and dozens of real-life stories written for both students and their parents as they sort through the many and details of the study abroad experience.