Studying Abroad Part II: Neva Barker Weighs In

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

This blog post was originally posted at Beyond the Elms, a career planning and networking blog for students, on April 20, 2011.

In one of my posts, I tried to address the question of whether or not studying abroad helps you land internships or jobs. I mentioned how my study abroad experience wasn’t working out, though I wasn’t too concerned — I’m finding internships already, and I can always study abroad in the summer. For many, however, studying abroad is a huge part of their undergraduate career, a high point in their four years at Scripps College. The experience can help define them as a woman, a student, and a person.

A few days ago I received an email from Neva Barker, the Director of Off-Campus Study at Scripps. She’d read my post and wanted to weigh in on how helpful studying abroad can be to the job and internship application process. She wrote:

Does studying abroad help you get a job or an internship?  My answer to that would be – only as much as any other experience you may add to your resume might.  There is nothing magical about listing any one thing on your resume, really.  What is important is being able to articulate what skills you acquired that you can put to good use in helping the company or organization accomplish its goals. That is what employers are looking for, and matching your skills to what the company needs is the key to getting that internship placement or the job of your dreams.

The hard part about job and internship interviews is being able to think on your feet and come up with smart, succinct answers to the questions thrown your way. Neva was right: there is nothing magical about listing one thing on your resume (though I’d imagine that saying you competed in the Olympics, or something as equally surprising to an interviewer, might work in your favor!). The important part is whether or not you can articulate how an experience, job, or internship can help you in your future job, or how it helped you grow as a viable individual for the position. Neva stressed just how important this was in her email. After all, what good is an entirely life-changing experience abroad if you can’t say just how it changed your life?

Surprisingly, not that many applicants are very good at answering my question: “So tell me about your time in X country.  What did you learn from that experience?” Often students will talk about how amazing their time abroad was, how great it was to see the world and meet new people.  That does nothing to move them on to the next round of interviews. They may talk about their personal growth — and while that is nice for them and is a slightly better answer, it is not what I care about as a potential employer. However, the students who will grab my attention are the ones who reply something like this, “To be honest, it was quite challenging and I learned to think on my feet and how to problem solve when confronted with a situation I had never faced before.  I am confident that these skills and strengths that I honed while studying abroad are qualities that I can use to help your company adapt to the rapid changes that are occurring in this industry.”  Students should illustrate the development of analytical skills, the ability to work as part of a team and with diverse populations, to communicate cross-culturally and show a familiarity with local customs in a different cultural context, etc.  Those are the responses that will get my attention.

I can already hear people thinking it: “But I can come up with a response like that from my experiences on Scripps’ campus!” Well, that could very well be true. I know that I have personally been in situations during my time at Scripps where the outcome was similar to the ones listed above. I have certainly developed my analytical skills, I’ve learned how to work as part of a team on various clubs and athletic teams, and my communication skills have certainly seen a jump, too.  Neva and I discussed this:

Learning to think critically and write well are the crucial skills to master in an undergraduate education.  One can do that without ever leaving campus, but I think studying abroad can certainly offer such experiences. By taking oneself out of the familiar, perhaps those opportunities are more easily recognized.

Eventually, she and I circled around to the topic of perfectionism, which, as many Scripps students know, is quite common on our campus. We’re driven students, no doubt about that! Studying abroad certainly opens doors to the possibility of failure. One might make a mistake in the language and have a misunderstanding with a native speaker, one might get lost in their city on the way to university and have to explain why they’re late — the list could go on and on. Is failure necessarily a bad thing, though? Neva and I agreed that failure is ultimately a learning process. After all, what is that saying from William Hickson? Oh, right: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” As long as you pick yourself up after a failure and learn from your mistakes, it can be an incredibly successful experience. What better conversation topic could there be for a job or internship interview?

Studying abroad offers many opportunities for risk-taking and failure. Ultimately, students learn that it is okay to fail, and they find the courage to pick themselves up and try again. Study abroad is not the only way these things can happen, but if a goal for studying abroad is to make oneself a more attractive applicant for an internship or a job, it can certainly be a significant factor. If you talk to most people who are happy in their jobs today, they will probably tell of a career path that was not linear, that did not happen without some fits and starts, some failures and disappointments that, in retrospect, just turned out to be just another opportunity trying to get their attention.

So, can studying abroad help you land an internship or job? It certainly can. While it may not be right for everyone, it probably won’t harm your chances at getting a job or an internship. At the very least, it will be a memorable growing experience, one that employers will always be able to talk about with you in an interview — just make sure you have a great response for them about how it helped you grow as an individual, and makes you just right for the job.

By the end of our discussion, Neva had come up with a new personal motto: “Failure is just a new opportunity trying to get my attention.” I think that’s a darn good motto to live by…don’t you?

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