How to Study or Work Abroad—No Matter Who You Are or What You Do
Have you ever thought about studying or working abroad but shrugged it off because you didn’t think it would be doable or relevant for your career?
If so, you’re not alone. Recently, the White House invited more than 100 travel bloggers to discuss how to reinvigorate America’s commitment to study abroad programs and get more American students out in the world. The State Department cited that less than 10% of university students in America study abroad. And for the rest of us, the numbers aren’t much better—fewer than 50% of Americans even have a valid passport.
There are a number of reasons why—students may be busy trying to fulfill classes required for graduation (which aren’t always offered in study abroad programs) or find that the programs offered are prohibitively expensive. And professionals rarely think about pursuing a program abroad, assuming that since they’re no longer students, no opportunities are available.
But it’s in all of our best interests to start reframing the way we think about study abroad. These programs are about more than spending a semester sipping sangria in Spain—they’re about developing important skills, networks, and professional experiences that can add value to your future. And they’re not limited to students.
Whether you’re still in school or a seasoned professional, here’s how you can find an opportunity that is right for your career and make the most of the experience for your future.
Find a Program That’s Relevant to Your Career
We often think of international travel as worlds away from our studies or professional lives. But in reality, there are plenty of opportunities that are applicable to your career path and incredibly relevant back home.
A great example of this is Colleen Germain, who studied in Italy for a year. “I went to the best language school, had expert professors, and got invaluable exposure to my field of decorative arts design,” she says. “I became fluent in Italian and affirmed my passion for art and design. I now work at One Kings Lane, and my experience in Italy was integral in informing my perspective for what I do today.”
Going abroad can help you develop new perspectives and ideas, discover new passions, and even gain skills that help you stand out among other professionals or job candidates. The key is finding an opportunity that is highly relevant to your current or future career path.
Research programs that provide both academic credit and strong professional experiences, such as internships or hands-on project management, that will be applicable on your resume no matter what. Make sure to also talk to the program coordinators or people who have gone through the program before you commit to make sure it will provide opportunities that will help you move forward in your chosen career.
Whatever area you’d like to advance in, there are a number of short-term professional programs (think one to three months) that can help you build your experience and add to your resume.
You can look for programs sponsored by think tanks, universities, nonprofits, or governments. You should look for an international program that will align with your career goals but also give you the freedom to develop your responsibilities and gain a better understanding of how your field operates in a new culture. These types of opportunities can help you expand your responsibilities and open the door to new roles in the future.
Find an Experience That Challenges You
One of the big criticisms of study abroad programs—or the reason they may seem like fun trip versus a career-boosting experience—is that they often keep Americans in their comfort zone, with minimal exposure to local communities. In other words, they simply bring the American experience to a new place.
“The key issue is that young Americans come home and are hardly changed. They have hardly developed new interests, new insights, and new life-long passions and curiosities,” says Aniket Shah, UN Advisor and author of Learning from the World: New Ideas to Develop America.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the best study abroad experiences do the exact opposite. You just need to research and find opportunities that will truly encourage you to grow and expand your worldview.
When you are searching for an experience abroad, consider what you want to get out of it and what sets it apart from other programs. Does it offer service-learning opportunities or allow you to live with local families? Will you be able to take on an internship or gain practical experience in the field?
Try to find a program that will help you master something new—something that you wouldn’t be able to learn or experience within the U.S.
A work placement abroad can give you a chance to step out of your comfort zone at work, prove that you can master working in a new environment, and gain new skills you wouldn’t be able to build back home, such as fluency in a language or working with staff in a completely different culture.
So, whether you look into international placements with your current company or external programs, make sure that any opportunity you pursue will help you do just that. Will the experience help you take on bigger regional markets, expand your client base, or grow your network in a short amount of time? Understand how the program could enhance your career trajectory in the long term.
Get Innovative to Pay for It
One of the biggest challenges that limits students and professionals from going abroad is that it can be prohibitively expensive. For university students, tuition isn’t the only worry—you also have to account for housing, living expenses, side trips, books, and more. And depending on the local currency, conversion rates can significantly add to the bill. And for those who are already working, taking time off without pay can quickly put a dent in your budget.
But there are ways to go abroad without breaking the bank. Plus, showing that you raised funding, received grants and fellowships, or bootstrapped your way to international experience can actually help you land a promotion or snag a new role.
Check with the office at your university that handles scholarships and fellowships to see what funding options are available. Or, look for external funding opportunities through organizations or web resources such as ProFellow, Idealist, World Learning, or specific programs like the Critical Language Scholarship, Boren Fellowship, and Fulbright Fellowship programs.
Talk to HR about what would be realistic as far as taking time off for a professional opportunity abroad, consider taking a sabbatical, or see how a program abroad might overlap with already-planned business travel for your company.
And don’t be afraid to pitch a new idea for your role (like a month abroad to meet with foreign clients)! Just make sure you can clearly illustrate how it will benefit the company in the long run.
Know How to Market it on Your Resume and in Interviews
When hiring managers review your resume or talk with you during an interview in the future, a mention of studying abroad may conjure up the reviewer’s own stereotypes—which could be positive or negative (for example, a hiring manager may think studying abroad is more about partying hard than hard work).
However, these experiences are highly subjective, and it’s important to emphasize what makes your experience different. Don’t leave it up to the hiring manager to interpret your experience abroad. Know how to highlight key international experiences and relate them directly to the position you’re applying for.
Think about the skills you acquired by being in the position of a student and any outside projects you worked on that could be relevant to the job you’re applying for.
For example, say you were working on a public health program and you served as the coordinator of fellow students. That’s a key experience that you can frame to display your leadership, initiative, and management skills—all things that you can bring to the position.
Going abroad during your career can be really interesting to many interviewers and can help you compete in global markets—you just need to emphasize the professional growth that you experienced on your trip.
For example, if during your time abroad you got to meet with political or business leaders, be prepared to talk about specific situations or meetings that will help you in your new position. Also, be sure to emphasize why the international experience has made you a more valuable professional, whether you now understand client culture better, have mastered program management in a new setting, or have a stronger international network.
Studying or working abroad is a great way to gain experience and grow your skills while immersing yourself in a new culture. When you are looking for an international program, think about how it will benefit you in the long term and how you can make your program work for you—so you come back with strong experiences that are marketable to a wide range of employers.
Going abroad doesn’t have to be out of reach; knowing where to look for opportunities and how to relate them to your career can help you get you out in the world a lot sooner than you think.
Photo of passport courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author