Impact of International Experiences

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The title of a recent article in Forbes—“How Studying Abroad Makes you a Better Leader”—kind of gives away the punch line.  While close to three-quarters of S&P 500 companies generate international revenue, the article notes, the leaders of these companies have a long way to go in developing their global competencies.  Yes, English has become the lingua franca of international business; but culture is always local.  And far too few executives have the skills to be truly successful in unfamiliar cultural waters.  Culture is far more than mastering a calendar of national holidays or knowing how to say hello.  Negotiation varies from one culture to another, as do a vast array of expectations related to the business of getting things done, ranging from timing to process, from who decides to how to approach next steps.  To be competitive, our graduates need to have the skills that allow them to approach new situations with confidence, to listen attentively to what is being said and what is not being said, and to understand multiple shades of grey.  And an excellent way to gain such skills is to study, intern, or live abroad.

In a previous post, I discussed the results of a recent study, the Erasmus Impact Study, which traced the effects of the signature European Union student mobility program.  In that study, students who had studied abroad reported improvement in their ability to work in teams and self-confidence, as well as in language and communication skills, organizational skills, critical thinking, and adaptability.  A new Regional Analysis of the Erasmus Impact Study provides additional insight into the impact of mobility, breaking the results down into four different regions within Europe.  Employment rates are clearly positively affected by study abroad, with Eastern Europe showing the most astonishing results (86% of these students reduced their risk of long-term unemployment).  Five to ten years after graduation, significantly higher numbers of students who studied abroad landed management-level positions as compared with their non-mobile counterparts (64% vs. 55%).  For the purposes of this post, I am less interested in the regional analysis per se than in the light the study sheds overall on the positive effects of mobility on students, both in terms of life opportunities and employment.  And these results can reasonably be said to apply, mutatis mutandis, on this side of the Atlantic.

But if we limit our internationalization efforts to study abroad, we are missing the boat.  Here in the U.S., particularly at large, research institutions like the University of Iowa, we currently have large populations of international students, both at the graduate and undergraduate level.  Graduate and professional study has long been internationalized to some degree; but it is only recently, here in the U.S., that we have seen large numbers of international undergraduates flocking to our campuses.  Under these circumstances, we have the opportunity to bring students from different backgrounds together to learn from each other, right here in the Midwest.  But we haven’t quite figured out how to do that in ways that are deliberate, sustained, and effective.  We need to look more closely, as we are now at Iowa, at our student orientation programs, our living-learning communities, and the housing assignments we offer first-year students.  We need to build on buddy programs; and we need to provide faculty and staff with the resources to develop their competencies, such as the UI’s "Building our Global Community," which provides UI faculty and staff with the knowledge and tools to foster a strong intercultural campus community. 

The diversity of our experiences, whether here at home or abroad, not only gives us a leg up in the marketplace, but makes us better people.  Let’s take advantage of these opportunities to learn from each other.

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