How do I explain my study abroad experience to a future employer?

By Riley Ellis, API San Joaquín de Flores Peer Mentor

Riley is a junior at Colorado State University and studied with API during the spring 2010 term in the Spanish Language and Latin American Studies Program at the Instituto San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica. Riley also serves as a peer advisor in the study abroad office at CSU.

For many, studying abroad is what students like myself would describe as a “life-changing” experience. Life-changing is a fantastic description, but it may not sound quite as thorough and descriptive as a future employer may like to hear in the professional setting. When a future employer asks me to talk about my study abroad experience the first thing that I automatically want to say is that it was an amazing, life-altering opportunity. Recently, though, I have given this response more thought. Of course it was life-changing, and I know that, but an employer will more than likely find it difficult to relate “life-changing” to how I can successfully contribute to his/her company as a future employee. I concluded that, rather than saying it was an amazing experience, it would be better to summarize the skills I gained abroad and how I would contribute those skills to my future employer’s company. I call these the “skills inventory of my study abroad experience.”

Students are often told that studying abroad will set them apart for future work opportunities. If they are anything like me though, after I arrived home from my international experience I was unsure how to best portray my life abroad to a future employer. What skills did I really gain from studying abroad? Well…dozens!! Inventiveness, adaptability, perseverance, perceptiveness, conscientiousness, resourcefulness, flexibility, open-mindedness, communication skills…and the list goes on! Here are the top five that I would share with a future employer:

Skills Inventory of my Study Abroad Experience:

1. Cultural awareness / Universal cross-cultural skills – This translates to being open-minded and able to adapt to change. Often times it is difficult to see exactly how our culture functions, day-to-day as well as in the business world, without leaving our culture for a while and experiencing a new one. By being culturally aware it demonstrates that you are able to adapt your behavior and accommodate local norms, on a universal level, as well as on an organizational and business level. An employer could see this as being a good team player that is creative and open to new ideas.

2. Language skills – This may seem obvious, but studying abroad offers students the chance to learn a second language! For me, my second language was Spanish, which is widely spoken in the United States and a valuable skill to have in the workplace. As many companies continue to follow the trend of expanding globally they will value foreign language skills more and more.

3. Independence and self-reliance – While living abroad I had to learn to live independently, being solely responsible for the decisions I made. This created a sense of self-discipline. For example, even though it was tempting to travel every weekend while in my host country, I knew that I was there for academic reasons and needed to do well in school. Learning to manage extracurricular life, traveling, and school while in an unfamiliar setting has helped me to better find a balance in my life. I am able to bring this balance and self-discipline into the workplace.

4. Ability to handle difficult situations / Deal with stress – Students studying abroad go through various stages of “culture shock” and have to constantly adapt to changing moods and situations. An employer could translate this as an ability to deal with change. For example, a student must learn to adjust to cultural barriers, differences, misunderstandings, etc. If a future employer were to ask how I would deal with a possible conflict within the office I could reference my ability to cope with the misunderstandings and cultural differences that I learned abroad. I would also mention that living abroad teaches patience and flexibility.

5. Volunteer Experience – By describing volunteer experience I can show an employer that I actually interacted in my host culture and that I enjoy becoming involved in the culture that I am living in (whether it be an organization/business culture or the study abroad culture).

If you have studied abroad like me, you know the immense value that this experience has added to your life. It is unquestionable the amount of skills that you have brought back home with you to the United States. I feel more confident in the person that I have become, and I can now offer insights into the world that others who have not studied abroad may not be able to.

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  1. Woohoo! Give it up for CSU! (hometown love =)

    Five great points, by the way. Study abroad is the experience that keeps on giving!


  2. Love it! Great tips. Insightful and useful!

  3. I found this article valuable to describing my experience overseas to possible future employers. Basically describes the disconnect between recent graduates and employers who went to college when these programs were not as widely available, and suggest ways that students can convey the experience in a light that makes them look more employable.

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