Imagine two college graduates interviewing for a job. Both applicants did well at school. Both have similar skills on paper. Both have good references. Both are enthusiastic. And both spent a semester on a study abroad program.
As CEO of a social network with users in over 160 countries, I need employees with global skills. During the job interview with our two candidates, I'd ask them to tell me about their best experience during study abroad. Here are responses I've heard in the past. One applicant talks about how awesome the experience was, that it would be too difficult to pick a favorite, but that it was the best time of his/her life. The other applicant begins with similar comments, but continues by mentioning instances where he/she interacted with locals, observed cultural differences, and experienced the feelings that come with being in another country and culture. The second applicant also talks about having a more global perspective after studying abroad.
Which applicant would you hire? I'd hired the second applicant in an instant. And I'd hire more graduates just like her. The second candidate showed me the cultural curiosity, awareness, empathy, and global perspective that will help my company grow and succeed.
Approximately 280,000 students from the United States study abroad each year for academic credit (as compared with about 820,000 international students at colleges and university in the U.S.). Students have the opportunity to return home with skills that will make them more employable in today's global economy. How can we help our student abroad students build those important global skills?
We need to show them ways to maximize the study abroad experience so they can build these skills. We need to give them strategies to implement before, during, and after their trip. First, help students "know before they go." They should spend part of pre-departure preparation connecting with people in the destination country through a social network like WeSpeke. They can learn a bit of the language. Ask about the culture and customs. Ask practical questions. Ask questions like "What are three things I should absolutely do when I'm in your city/country"? These conversations will help them be ready for the experience. Second, they need suggestions on ways to observe, process, and reflect upon reflect their interactions with the people and culture during the trip. Third, after they return home, they need ways to process and articulate the study abroad experience so they can showcase their new global skills to employers like me during job interviews.
Let's go back to those two job candidates. The first applicant may have picked up the same global skills as the second candidate, but might not have been as prepared to share them in an interview. Or maybe the first candidate didn't approach study abroad with the goal of building global skills that would integrate with a career. Whatever the reason, we can't let the study abroad trip be a missed opportunity for this student and for me. And as a parent of a study abroad student, I'd feel the same way (especially after writing the check).
As we move deeper into the 21st century, it is critical that the United States (or any country) improve the ability of its workers to operate in a globalized and multi-cultural economy. Study abroad can be the transformative journey to prepare students for the global workforce. We need to examine how we prepare students for study abroad with the goal of helping them maximize this once-in-a-lifetime experience as they enter the global workforce.