5 Reasons Why Studying Abroad Is a Shrewd Career Move

A college student poses for a picture
Arielle Zimmerman poses for an Instagram photo to celebrate International Education Week during an education abroad fair at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 6, 2018. Zimmerman is a junior. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

In a career workshop focused on teaching University of South Florida (USF) students how to constructively talk about their study abroad experiences, some descriptions were banned from the discussion.

Amazing. Awesome. Life-changing.

Studying abroad no doubt ticks all three boxes. So why were they banned?

“We want to see students dive in a little deeper,” said Chris Haynes, assistant director of student services at USF’s education abroad office.

By dive deeper, Haynes wants students to articulate exactly how their study abroad experiences translate to tangible skills.

Whether applying for grad school or trying to land a good job right out of college, studying abroad prepares students for the future in ways that might not seem evident at first.

Here are the biggest benefits of studying abroad.

1. Distinguish Yourself From Other College Grads

A member of college faculty greets students
Chris Haynes greets students and faculty during an education abroad fair at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 6, 2018. Haynes encourages students to talk about how study abroad translates into tangible experiences. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Studying abroad helps graduates stand out from their peers, as less than 8% of bachelor-degree seeking students studied internationally in the 2017-2018 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE).

“Employers look very positively upon study abroad,” said Lesa Shouse, director of the career center at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “And I think it’s going to continue to grow.”

In October 2017, the IIE released a comprehensive study that examined the employability of 4,500 study abroad alumni

Dr. Christine Farrugia, head researcher and author of the study, said there’s been an assumption in the higher education industry that studying abroad helps alumni land jobs. But she wanted to put that assumption to the test with empirical research.

The biggest takeaway?

“There is an association between studying abroad and positive career outcomes,” she said. Among those positive outcomes, respondents reported technical- and soft skills development, improved self-confidence, job offers, promotions and more.

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2. Sharpen Your Soft Skills

University of South Florida St. Petersburg freshman Summer Devlin, 19, participates in a presentation about the Gillman Scholarship at the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library on Nov. 7, 2018. Devlin is planning to study Spanish and bioengineering in Madrid, Spain.  Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

For a long time, college students have been told: You need engineering, computer science or coding skills because STEM jobs are the best paying and most in demand. 

But that’s not the whole picture.

In 2013, Google conducted an experiment on its own hiring and promotion practices. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the best coders or computer scientists probably performed the best at the company, right? 

Wrong. Google audited all of its recruitment data since 1998 and found that the top factors of career mobility within the company were all soft skills — problem solving, communication and insight into others. 

Worried about the costs of international education? We compiled a list of study abroad scholarships to get you overseas for cheap — or free.

And according to Farrugia’s research, study abroad alumni reported huge increases in those exact skills. In her research, she defines these skills as the “most desired by 21st century employers.”

In terms of career trajectory, those soft skills also happen to be what makes a good manager.

“As your career progresses, and as you get into the working world,” Farrugia said, “you’re going to find that… technical skills are important but not enough.”

3. Jumpstart Learning a Second Language

Flags celebrating International Education Week frame students walking by at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on November 7, 2018. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Year after year, employers report that fluency in a foreign language is a sought-after skill. And there’s no better way to learn a foreign language than to be embedded in a country where it’s spoken.

Besides the cognitive, spatial, problem-solving and metalinguistic benefits of learning a second language, it’s also practical. Bilingual workers earn 5% to 20% more than their English-only counterparts, according to Salary.com.

As IIE’s employability study notes, the length of the study abroad program is a big factor in making gains in a foreign language. Studying abroad for an academic year had the “strongest impact” on foreign language and communication skills.

As the job market continues to globalize, experience with different cultures is at a premium. Nothing says “나를고용해요!” (Hire me!) like second-language skills.

“What better way to stand out on a resume or in an interview?” Haynes said.

4. Expand Your Network

Studying abroad offers a host of opportunities to meet new people: professors, international students, locals and potential employers — all of whom can enrich your personal and professional life.

According to research from Gallup, establishing a connection with a professor and finding a mentor in your career field are two crucial factors in having a fulfilling college experience. Those bonds are often overt goals of international education programs. 

For example, “faculty-led” programs are a growing trend at USF and campuses across the nation. These types of programs are led by U.S. professors who take small groups of their university’s students overseas, often with much lower student-to-faculty ratios than a typical class. The effect, for students, is that they can directly interact and work with their professors, who were otherwise orators in stadium-sized lecture halls.

Pro Tip

Depending on where and how long you studied abroad, you may be eligible to join your host school’s alumni network, which could lead to additional opportunities.

And when USF students return to campus, they have an organization of fellow travelers ready to greet them and several career advice programs at their disposal.

“Even if you’re not planning on having an international career,” Farrugia said, the benefits of studying abroad will help you back home.

5. Nail the Job Interview and Land Your Dream Job

Recent college grads generally don’t have years of work experience, but international experience is a big asset. Being prepared to talk about it on your resume, in your cover letter and in the job interview is key.

But you may not be asked about your travels directly, so it’s up to you to connect the dots. The best way is to inject your international experience in answers to common interview questions.

“You’re going to have some kind of questions about how you deal with people that are different than you, or how you deal with difficult people,” Shouse said.

Bingo. Those are ripe for study-abroad anecdotes.

“It gives you those concrete examples that interviewers are looking for,” Shouse said. “You’re able to talk specifically about an experience and how you learned from it.”

So yes, studying abroad is amazing and awesome and life-changing. But at the end of the day, it will also help you land a job.

“We’re not doing it just to send students to Spain,” Haynes said. “We’re trying to prepare them for the workforce.”

Adam Hardy is staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He studied abroad as a low-income, first-generation college student. That gave him the self-confidence to move to South Korea, where he taught grade schoolers and North Korean refugees. Read his full bio, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.