As a career professional and as an international education professional, we work with post-secondary students and graduates who are undertaking or have completed international experiences. It is our mission to help move them as smoothly as possible from “backpack to briefcase” on their return. To do so, we must support them before, during and after their experience abroad.
Why international experience matters
There are demonstrated career benefits tied to having a global experience. In 2011, IES Abroad conducted a survey that verified hiring advantages for graduates with an international experience. Some of their findings included shorter job-search times, higher salaries in the early career stage of employment, faster promotion and advancement, a stronger ability to adapt to changing situations and a capacity to build inter-cultural relationships, which resulted in leadership roles.
Furthermore, the skills gained through international experiences can help put students in a stronger position to thrive in the future of work. In 2016, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) created a list of core competencies as guidelines for professionals to best support students in successfully transitioning from the academic environment to the workplace, and as a benchmark to measure their career readiness in the current job market. These competencies include Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Oral/Written Communications, Teamwork/Collaboration, Digital Technology, Leadership, Professionalism/Work Ethic and Global/Intercultural Fluency.
NACE’s competencies directly align with the 10 skills identified by the Institute for The Future’s Skills 2020 research as necessary for success in the shifting Canadian economy. By examining key influencers in the marketplace, and conducting research with various companies and organizations, they outlined the relevant skills and attributes that employers look for in a desirable employee. These include social intelligence, global connectivity, adaptive thinking, problem solving and cross-cultural competency.
Study, volunteer and work abroad programs for students provide fantastic learning opportunities to foster the competencies highlighted by NACE and Skills 2020, which can set students apart from their competition when applying for jobs.
Supporting students before and during international experiences
We need to support students throughout all stages of their international program. Before they leave, we can help students set realistic expectations and ensure that they have all of the necessary documents and resources in place before they go. Furthermore, if adaptation to the new country is slow, they may need to check in while they are away.
Although we believe in the benefits of studying, working and volunteering abroad, it can sometimes be challenging to sell students on value of an international experience. Some tips to increase engagement include the following:
- Ensure students understand that the value of the skills and experience gained can far outweigh the cost of the program.
- Coach students to identify, clarify and articulate why they want to go abroad and what they hope to gain from their experience. There are so many options available that the amount of information can be overwhelming, making it difficult to decide. Narrowing options down to a handful of possibilities is necessary to guarantee buy-in.
- Support students in their research, helping them find the best fit for them.
- Develop close rapport with parents as required.
- Connect students with alumni of their chosen program – first-hand accounts help to quell fears of safety, isolation and culture shock.
- Help students secure funding available for the program. Two general resources include scholarships.gc.ca or www.studyabroad.com.
Facilitating successful outcomes upon return
As a career practitioner, I focus on teaching students to differentiate themselves in the job market, ensuring that they stand out from their competition. In terms of hard and soft skills, many students look the same on paper and it is vital to show them how to go beyond just listing their skills, opting instead to tell unique stories around how they developed and used their skills. Therefore, students who study, volunteer or work abroad may need support in clearly identifying the value of their international experience (i.e. pinpointing and articulating exactly how their gained skills and attributes translate as unique and valuable to an organization).
Saint Mary’s University’s Studio For Teaching and Learning, in partnership with Career Services, supports students in this process by reflecting on their personal development, and identifying and articulating their skills through the REEL Careers Program (Reflecting & Engaging through Experiential Learning). This is a three-part narrative and reflective certificate program that helps students review, observe and analyze their international experience. It helps them identify how their experience enhanced their personal development and fostered professional competencies, and how to best promote themselves to hiring authorities in a compelling way.
Finally, some students need assistance with unpacking their experience and managing reverse culture shock when they come home. This is done through story circles, reflection pieces, presentations or mentoring new students travelling abroad.
If we support students in their study, work or volunteer experience effectively, we foster a positive outcome that may inspire them to share their experience with other students. In so doing, we enable them to step into a leadership role as ambassadors, creating a peer-driven approach that can increase engagement in our international programs and enhance the development of our students personally and professionally.