Studying abroad can help you stand out from peers

By Carolyn Bigda, Chicago Tribune

A year or semester of study abroad can help college students learn a language, get immersed in a new culture and broaden their understanding of the world.

It may also help them get a job.

Stacie Berdan, co-author of a new book, "A Student Guide to Study Abroad" (the Institute of International Education, $14.95), as well as an international careers expert, said that in a global economy, employers increasingly value study-abroad experiences.

"A lot of growth is going on in markets outside the U.S.," Berdan said. "The study-abroad experience shows you can live and work internationally and manage cross-cultural situations."

It may also help you stand out from your peers.

According to the Institute of International Education, about 274,000 students studied abroad during the 2010-11 academic year, the latest period for which data are available, only a small fraction of total undergraduates in the U.S.

"The number of students going abroad is rising, but it's rising so slowly," said Allan Goodman, co-author of "Study Abroad" and the institute's president and chief executive.

"College students are not making international a part of their education."

A number of obstacles can get in the way of international ventures during school — including academic requirements, graduate school entrance exams and athletic schedules — but if you do get abroad, the experience could help set you apart from job candidates after graduation.

Experts offer these tips for making the most of your time overseas.

If you're in the planning stages, be strategic about when you go. In the past, students typically went overseas during their junior year, but today there are more options to go abroad in between semesters, like during the summer break or sophomore year, Goodman said.

That flexibility may make it possible for more students to fit an international experience into demanding academic schedules.

"By junior year, it's often too late for a lot of students," Goodman said. "They're locked up in double majors and can't afford to miss classes."

As far as location, some employers say they prefer it when students go to regions with big potential for economic growth, such as Asia, South America and Eastern Europe.

"First of all, it's better to go (abroad) than to not go," said Diane Gulyas, president of the performance polymers unit at DuPont, a $54 billion chemical and materials company. "But I do think Asia is hot. Over the next five years, 50 percent of the growth in my business will come from Asia."

If you've already studied abroad, career experts say it's important to put the experience into terms that will appeal to employers, regardless of where you went in the world.

"You have to be able to articulate what you gained from your semester abroad," said Steve Miranda, managing director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies at Cornell University. "If you're an architecture student and you went to Italy, say that you went to one of the world's pre-eminent sites to study architecture."

In addition to highlighting the tangible skills you've picked up, like proficiency in a foreign language or knowledge from classes specific to your field, advisers suggest noting any "soft skills" you now have, such as a greater sense of confidence and adaptability.

"Employers are looking for people who can problem-solve, and the study-abroad experience goes directly to that," said Gihan Fernando, executive director of the career center at American University, where more than half of students study abroad before graduation.

Those skills will appeal to employers of any size and location, not just multinational corporations, advisers say.

Fernando said he has seen positive results.

"The students (at American University) who've had a study-abroad experience have a higher likelihood of being employed at graduation or shortly after," he said.

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