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Career Development & Going Back

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Trying to write about your study abroad experience on your resume? Or are you interested in going back? Read about work, volunteer and academic opportunities abroad.

Using Your Experience Professionally

How can you market yourself using your study abroad experience? What opportunities are available to continue in an international field? Below you'll find information on integrating your international experience in the job search or on graduate/professional school applications. 

Global Competency and Your Future 

Global competency is a key to success in today's job market. It is imperative to be "globally ready" to compete in a demanding, constantly changing global economy. You should be ready to take stock of your experiences and understand how to translate these into tangible evidence of your competencies both on your cover letter and resume as well as during an interview. 

A Michigan State University Recruiting Trends report identified "geographic awareness and global understanding" as the primary "new competencies [for job seekers] critical to future success." The report notes that, as businesses become realigned globally, having employees with an awareness of space, social and cultural geographic movement, and dominant physical assets of a region will be critical to a company's vitality. 

What Does "Globally Competent" Mean?

  • Displaying a mindset that appreciates and respects other cultural perspectives and norms (open-minded, non-judgmental, accepts differences, etc.) 
  • Having experience in multicultural environments either abroad or in one's own country 
  • Being adaptable and flexible in unfamiliar situations 
  • Possessing an international awareness and a knowledge and understanding of global issues 
  • Effectively communicating across cultural and linguistic borders 
  • Having the ability to effectively manage ambiguity and change 
  • Seeing your chosen industry/profession and the world as part of a "larger picture"  

Defining Your Qualities and Skills 

Define and describe qualities reinforced by the study abroad experience and how they are applicable to the job or graduate/professional program, such as: 

  • Dedication to a project/goal  
  • Perseverance in attaining goals 
  • Creative thinking  
  • Problem solving  
  • Adaptability and flexibility 
  • Comfort with ambiguity 
  • Ability to learn through observation/listening 
  • Broadened view of self/world 
  • Competency/fluency in a foreign language 
  • Ability to communicate across barriers 
  • Cultural understanding
  • Appreciation of diversity
  • Teamwork and relationship-building skills 
  • Independence 
  • Ability to take risks and initiative
  • Accept responsibility
  • Self-reliance
  • Open-mindedness
  • Self-confidence
  • Curiosity and adventurous spirit 
  • Resourcefulness 

These are all transferrable skills. They are not limited to any one academic discipline or field of study, but are transferable to many occupations. These skills are highly sought-after by employers. 
 
Consider how your cross-cultural experience has developed or strengthened particular skills and attitudes. What have you learned from your experiences and how did they change you?  You can ask yourself the following questions to begin to identify some of the international and cross-cultural knowledge, skills and experience you possess. 

Language and Communication Skills: 

  • What languages do you speak/write/understand? In what language(s) are you proficient/fluent? 
  • Do you have an ear for understanding different accents?
  • Are you able to recognize "body language" meaning in another culture? For example, hand waves and head nods can mean vastly different things from one culture to the next. 
  • Do you understand slang words in more than one language or dialect? 

Knowledge of Traditional and Popular Culture:

  • With what cultures, nationalities, or ethnic or religious traditions have you had extensive experience? 
  • Are you familiar with nuances of ethnic or religious traditions beyond your own? 
  • Are you closely familiar with specific cultural, religious or national festivals and their significance? 
  • Can you identify traditional and/or contemporary forms of art from other cultures? 
  • Are you familiar with social trends in other countries (i.e. popular music, fashion, movies)? 
  • Do you use, or are you familiar with, technologies, gadgets or websites that are currently popular in other countries? 

Knowledge of Business and Employment Practices: 

  • Are you familiar with the predominant management styles in another country? Can you articulate differences and similarities? 
  • Are you familiar with labor laws and standards and/or hiring practices in other countries? 
  • Do you have a professional network (i.e. professional contacts) in other countries?  

Education: 

  • In how many different countries have you studied? 
  • Are you able to articulate the similarities and differences in educational systems across cultures? 
  • Have you observed a noticeable difference in teaching and/or learning styles in other countries?  

Ability to Adapt: 

  • How many countries have you visited? Lived in? Worked or volunteered in? 
  • Do you adjust quickly to new surroundings? 
  • When faced with a new environment, do you fit in quickly? 
  • Are you comfortable using public transportation in different cities/countries? 

Global Thinking Skills: 

  • Do you follow news from abroad on a regular basis? 
  • When news happens in one country, do you often think of its implications elsewhere? 
  • Can you clearly describe the political parties from at least one other country? 
  • Do you know how to access social services in another country? 
  • Have you volunteered or participated in providing humanitarian aid abroad? 

How to reflect your study abroad experience on your application materials:

Cover Letter 

Carefully read the job description for your desired position. What specific skills are mentioned and what can you pull from your cross-cultural experience to strength your case? Make a list of your transferable skills and the job qualifications, and then match them, being sure to highlight these in your resume, cover letter, and interview. 
 
Regardless of your career goals, be sure to include details about your intercultural experience, language abilities, work experience with international organizations, volunteer work/research abroad, or coursework with global aspects.  
 
Think about skills you gained and what you learned. Make the connection to the job description for the employer, as it won't always be obvious. 
 
To effectively present an international experience on your resume and in your cover letter, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What am I trying to communicate to a potential employer about my international experience? 
  • Where should I include this experience on my resume so that it will have the most impact and support what I am trying to communicate? 
  • How did my experience relate to my major/academic path? 
  • What skills did I gain? What cross-cultural competencies did I develop? 
  • Did I gain research experience through conducting an independent study project? 
  • Have I become well-versed in some aspect of my host country's culture? 

Resume 

In addition to addressing the questions above, there are several ways that you can emphasize your international experience on a resume: 

  • Make sure your study abroad experience stands out and is identified as part of the Education section, or have a separate section for Study Abroad. 
  • Highlight the subjects you studied while abroad, the place where you studied, the grades you received, and the amount of time you were there. 
  • Focus on your accomplishments and skills. Your resume should focus on the results of your study abroad experience, not simply where you went or what you did. 
  • If you completed an internship abroad, make sure to give this experience its own space and detail, especially if it was language intensive or provided practical work experience in your academic major. This could be located in a Relevant Experience section of your resume or under Education, separated from but associated with your study abroad program. 
  • Use the  Interagency Language Roundtable Language Skill Self Assessments in describing your language proficiency. 
  • If you are applying for a position that involves travel or significant work with overseas offices or customers, and if you have done a significant amount of travel to other countries, you may want to include a Countries Visited section. This will demonstrate your exposure to a variety of cultures, suggesting you will require less preparation and hand-holding when it comes to this part of the job. It also reflects an interest in travel and adventure, self-reliance, and heightened cross-cultural sensitivity. Instead of listing countries where you spent only a day or two, note those where you really spent significant time and could discuss them in an interview or conversation. 

How to talk about your study abroad experience in an interview:

Interview 

You can - and should - always find a relevant way to incorporate your study abroad experience into an interview. In many ways this sets you apart from your peers, bringing a different skill set and outlook to a potential employer. As a study abroad returnee, you have developed a tremendous number of transferable skills during your study abroad experience.  
 
Think of examples and specific stories related to your experiences abroad that best highlight your newly acquired skills and demonstrate your ability to: 

  • Creatively solve problems by applying familiar concepts to unfamiliar situations 
  • Be self-confident, yet able to listen and learn from people whose value systems are different from yours 
  • Take personal risks and act independently 
  • Be flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing situations 
  • Have a basic command of the local language, and be able to use it in practical situations 
  • Imagine, forecast, analyze or address business situations from a different cultural frame of reference 

Sample Interview Questions 

Some questions may specifically relate to study abroad: 

  • Tell me about your study/volunteer/internship experience abroad. 
  • Why did you choose to study abroad? 
  • Why and how did you choose your specific study abroad program or location? 
  • How did study abroad change you? How will this be helpful to you in the future? 
  • What did you learn overseas that would help you in this job? 
  • In what ways are you more adaptable, open-minded and observant? 
  • Describe your role in working with students from different cultural backgrounds. 
  • Tell me what you did to immerse yourself in an unfamiliar environment. 
  • Can you identify a specific time when you needed to modify your behavior to accommodate cultural norms? 

Questions that may not explicitly ask about study abroad can still present opportunities to talk about your experiences and skills: 

  • Tell me something interesting about yourself. 
  • Tell me about your most challenging situation while in college and how you handled it. 
  • Tell me about a time when you took a risk. What did you gain or lose? 
  • By giving an example, what role do you typically play on teams? 
  • Tell me about a time when you had to think on your feet to come to a decision quickly. 
  • Tell me about an interpersonal conflict you had with someone. How did you deal with this conflict? 
  • Name an accomplishment that has given you the most satisfaction. Why?

Students have a number of opportunities to live and work abroad in the years following graduation, including fellowships and scholarships, work or volunteer abroad opportunities, or through established service programs like the Peace Corps!

Job Search 

  • Keep up contacts that you made abroad 
  • Visit the  Career Services Center to find out information about overseas job opportunities, overseas companies, or U.S. companies with overseas operations 
  • Consider a variety of career paths, such as: 
  • Teaching 
  • Translating and interpreting 
  • Government 
  • Education administration 
  • Government 
  • Education administration 
  • Business, industry and commerce 
  • Public Service 

Additional Resources for Using Your Experience Professionally 

Sources: Packaging Your International Experience (Kimberly Larsson, AbroadView, 2008); Effective Marketing of International Experiences to Employers (Cheryl Matherly); AIFS Student Guide to Study Abroad & Career Development (Martin Tillman, 2011); A View from LanguageCorps, Founding Partner Jed Willard: What is Global Competency? (NAFSA Global Workforce Development, 2009); Taking stock of your international experience (Grace Kutney, Sweet Careers Consulting).