Thursday, January 21, 2016

Studying abroad could give you an edge in the job market

“Tell me about a time when you were faced with a difficult situation and how you resolved it,” an interviewer might ask you.

Or perhaps, “Give me an example of a moment when you were thrown out of your comfort zone and how you dealt with it.”

These questions can be daunting for even the most qualified job applicant. But the truth is, your interviewer is probably expecting some pretty stereotypical answers: You took a difficult class outside of your major and, by some force of will, ended up getting a decent grade. You took part in a group project that you essentially had to complete on your own because your partners were lazy.

Yawn. This isn’t going to help you stand out.

But, studies show that a study abroad experience might. Not only will a story about tackling the language barrier during your time in Spain have your interviewer going from apathetic to absorbed – it can also showcase all the skills that make a study abroad experience truly valuable.

Kaitlyn Roth in Germany_photo

Kaitlyn exploring Hamburg, Germany.

After going on a two-week trip to Germany in high school, University of Iowa alum Kaitlyn Roth (B.S.E. biomedical engineering ’14) was inspired to learn the language fluently and spend a semester studying abroad there during her time at the UI. She said those experiences led to the job she has today -- as an engineer for a medical device company with offices all over the world.

Her current work project is partnered with an organization in Germany, where she is able to translate documents from German to English and communicate with her German colleagues. She hopes to relocate to one of her company’s international offices within a few years.

“I have only heard across the board that global experience is valued and can help you become a leader and move up in the company,” Roth said.

And the same goes for other career fields. The Erasmus Student Network found that an average of 92 percent of employers prefer transversal skills in their employees, which you learn from studying abroad. Some of these might include collaboration, flexibility, and the ability to communicate effectively. Employers will know you have these skills when they look at your resume and see a study abroad program – but it’s your job to effectively articulate them.

“Showing a prospective employer that you have an understanding of a culture that is not the same as ours is a very attractive trait, and something that’s unique for a lot of Americans,” Ruth Ferguson, head of human resources for global markets at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said.

A 2015 survey from the Pomerantz Career Center on undergraduates and their experiential education said that the study abroad participation rate at the UI is 29 percent. Though this continues to increase, just 24 percent of those students said that the experience itself led to their current job.

Amanda McFadden, associate director of career advising and international services at the Pomerantz Career Center, said that this percentage could increase if students more persuasively communicated the skills they have gained from studying abroad in their resumes, in cover letters, and in interviews.

“For employers, much of the value of a student’s study abroad experience is found in how they have reflected on that experience and how they articulate the relevance of the skills gained,” McFadden said.

Though simply including a study abroad program on your resume is enough to set you apart from other applicants, what matters, is how you sell that experience. Often, students who have previously studied abroad will come to an interview, but won’t spend enough time talking about what they learned from it.

McFadden said that students can prepare beforehand by carefully reading the job description to identify transferrable skills that are key elements of the position, then reflect on how their experience has helped them to develop those skills. She also advises that they practice answering questions aloud using examples from their time abroad, either with a friend, or via InterviewStream, or a mock interview at the Career Center

“Global Leadership Initiative,” a one semester hour online course available at the UI, is one McFadden recommends to all students prior to departing the U.S., as it further assists students in identifying skills they will gain abroad.

“(Upon returning), I think they can continue to build and demonstrate their global learning by joining student organizations and seeking volunteer opportunities that have a global or intercultural focus,” she said.

“Global learning is not limited to studying abroad, and can be greatly enriched by additional intercultural experiences in the United States.”

Scott Valleroy, an IT team leader for John Deere – one of many companies that recruits students from the UI – agrees. The work that John Deere does is global, with factories, offices, and other facilities in more than 30 countries. Combining a skillset from studying abroad with other technical skillsets upon returning, is what can really set a prospective employee apart.

“For example, the technology, engineering, or business knowledge combined with international exposure can bring a unique diversity of knowledge to one of our global teams,” Valleroy said.

Another key driver to the success of their global teams is relationship building – an employee who can easily relate to global employees may find it easier to connect with his or her coworkers. The diversity of knowledge in an employee who has worked abroad can be beneficial. The company may leverage their experiences to better teach its U.S. counterparts how to be most effective as a global team.

“We often look to our employees with this international exposure to help lead and enhance our global skillset.”

Finally, communication is critical to efficient and quality work. He said that technology, engineering, and accounting teams seem to sometimes have their own language. Communicating can be challenging when considering a foreign language as well – that’s why knowing both is crucial.

“You can be a step ahead of others if you can speak in both the technical language as well as the national language.”