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Linking Study Abroad to Career Success

By Allan E. Goodman, President and CEO, Institute of International Education | Published: March 27, 2018

In an ever more competitive economy, graduates often need more than a college degree to convince employers that they have the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace. Today, employers are looking for graduates who have more than technical expertise in a given field. Employers want their new hires to be able to work effectively as a member of a team, think critically and communicate across cultures–a particularly important trait in a globalized economy.

Colleges and universities are under more pressure than ever before to ensure that students find a job after graduation. Study abroad cultivates many attributes desirable to employers, giving graduates who have international experience a leg up in the job market. How can we say this with certainty? The Institute of International Education (IIE) and other organizations have contributed to a growing body of research illuminating the link between study abroad and employability.

Cover of the report

In a new white paper, Study Abroad Matters, produced in conjunction with the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) Foundation, IIE lays out eight key recommendations for study abroad officers who want to help students capitalize on their time overseas. Our goal is to help higher education institutions, industry and graduates better articulate the value of study abroad for the contemporary marketplace.

While going abroad is not an automatic guarantee of obtaining a job post-graduation, it does signal to employers that graduates possess certain traits that will help them be effective and move the company or organization further along toward achieving its goals.

Just as higher education institutions are working to make the link between education and career outcomes stronger, so should study abroad offices. That means helping students identify their study abroad objectives as part of their career goals in order to help them tailor their international experiences to fit. Cultural intelligence and soft skills should be part of the desired outcomes of a study abroad experience; both are highly valued in an increasingly globalized economy.

A survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit noted that 90 percent of executives from 68 countries cite cross-cultural management as their top challenge in working across borders. It is important to note that students seeking jobs will need to prove to prospective employers that they possess these skills. Study abroad and career offices can work together in preparing students to do this.   

A graph shows the skill growth in students who have studied abroad in Intrapersonal Competencies, Cognitive competencies, and Interpersonal Competencies.
Adapted from "Gaining an Employment Edge: The Impact of Study Abroad on 21st Century Skills & Career Prospects in the United States," by C. Farrugia and J. Sanger, 2017. Copyright 2017 by IIE.

According to an IIE study that surveyed more than 4,500 alumni of study abroad programs, Gaining an Employment Edge: The Impact of Study Abroad on 21st Century Skills & Career Prospects, graduates say that study abroad helped them land a job and succeed in the workplace once employed. Respondents said that study abroad helped introduce them to a broader range of job possibilities and gave them the confidence to pursue new opportunities; developed their skills in critical areas such as communication, problem solving, flexibility, language proficiency and tolerance for ambiguity; and more than half said that they believed their study abroad experience contributed to a job offer and promotions later in their career.

Combining study abroad and language immersion is a powerful combination that enables students to take an even deeper dive into a culture. By speaking at least some language, students can appreciate their host culture a little more and build relationships a little bit deeper. Plus those who achieve a level of proficiency in another language are better able to compete with graduates from around the world who often have the advantage of growing up speaking two or three languages. Increasingly, companies recognize that they must have the capacity to communicate in a range of languages, within and outside the United States, to compete in the global marketplace.

Study abroad offices can help guide students to search out programs in an immersive and semi-immersive environment. Students should be encouraged to keep an open mind about where and how to study languages. For example, French and Spanish are spoken in more than just France and Spain, and even if students take their academic classes in English, they can study language outside of the classroom.

Drew Tucker, a former Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Madrid who had studied in Valencia, Spain and Colombia as an undergraduate, says, “my experience abroad has given me confidence, communication and language skills, self-awareness, patience, and perspective.” As a business analyst at Deloitte Consulting LLP today, Drew says he benefits from the many skills he learned during his experiences abroad. “I am more comfortable navigating multicultural environments,” he says. “My company certainly values my international experience, and with Deloitte offices all over the globe, I am always looking for ways to further grow my international experience!”

These students return with a better understanding of another culture and the ability to see the world through more than just an English-language, American lens—a winning combination that will distinguish them from their peers in the job search.

Given that study abroad leads to positive career outcomes for so many, we are happy to see that the number of U.S. students who choose to go abroad continued to rise, according to our most recent Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, which IIE produces annually with support from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State. Although the number is at an all-time high, still only 10 percent of U.S. undergraduate students are graduating with an international study experience.

IIE created Generation Study Abroad to help colleges and universities across the country provide more international experience opportunities to a greater number of students. Many campus commitment partners have used targeted outreach, recruitment and funding to address the barriers to study abroad among students from diverse economic and social backgrounds, including first-generation students, low-income students, ethnic minorities, students with disabilities and nontraditional-age students. We believe this is essential, and we encourage all higher education institutions to take on these challenges, in order to better prepare their students for careers in the global economy. 

About the Author 

A headshot of Allan Goodman

Dr. Allan E. Goodman is the sixth President of the Institute of International Education (IIE), the leading not-for-profit organization in the field of international educational exchange and development training. Previously, Dr. Goodman was Executive Dean of the School of Foreign Service and Professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of books on international affairs published by Harvard, Princeton and Yale University presses. Dr. Goodman served as Presidential Briefing Coordinator for the Director of Central Intelligence in the Carter Administration. Subsequently, he was the first American professor to lecture at the Foreign Affairs College of Beijing, helped create the first U.S. academic exchange program with the Moscow Diplomatic Academy for the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, and developed the diplomatic training program of the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam.

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