Study Abroad's New Focus Is Job Skills

Colleges strive to translate students' experience for employers

Brandi Simons for The Chronicle

Cheryl Matherly, associate dean for global education at the U. of Tulsa, has built bridges between study abroad and career services with programs like a summer research trip to Japan.
October 17, 2010

Cheryl Matherly was going through résumés with a hiring manager for a major consulting firm when she had her "aha" moment.

Like many employers, the campus recruiter put a premium on the ability of potential hires to succeed in unfamiliar situations with co-workers from different backgrounds and cultures. Ms. Matherly, then assistant dean of students for career and international education at Rice University, thought she had the perfect candidate, a history major who had won a scholarship to conduct three months of solo research in Spain. The value of his having navigated working alone in a foreign country, she thought, was obvious.

But the recruiter pushed the résumé aside, dismissing the student's experience as a "backpacking trip through Europe," Ms. Matherly recalls. "That's what it boiled down to for him."

"It spoke volumes to me about how employers commonly view an overseas-study experience," she says.

The discrepancy isn't unusual. Even in an increasingly global economy, few companies set out to hire recent graduates who have studied or interned abroad. More than one survey of employers ranks international study low among cocurricular activities in its relevance to the workplace.

One problem, argues Ms. Matherly, who is now assistant provost for global education at the University of Tulsa, is that students don't know how to talk about their time overseas in a way that is meaningful to employers. So, she set out to design workshops and seminars to help students do just that.

"The value isn't that you had the abroad experience itself," she says. "It's what you learned overseas that allows you to work in a cross-cultural environment. Students have to learn how to talk about that experience in terms of transferrable skills, how it relates to what an employer wants."

Combating Perceptions

One challenge is the nature of the hiring process. While executives may recognize the importance of hiring employees with international experience, recruiters typically have more focused goals.

"They're looking for a dozen engineers, a dozen accountants," says Ralph Brigham, global director of campus relations at Southwestern Company, a company that sells educational products and a past president of the National Association of Colleges and Employers. "They're not thinking about how, in the long term, an international experience might pay off."

The roots of study abroad's perception problem, many in the field agree, is that it has historically been seen as an add-on, a perk for wealthy students at selective colleges. That view is reinforced by the demographics: Although students from a wider swath of majors are going overseas, and to more diverse destinations, the typical participant still is a white woman in the humanities or social sciences. Europe, rather than Asia, with its growing business and economic clout, remains the top destination.

It's not just employers' attitudes that must be changed. College career-office staff members often know little about overseas study or its employment value. And study-abroad advisers typically focus on getting students overseas, not on what happens once they return.

What's more, colleges' organizational structures can mean that interaction between study-abroad and career counselors is rare. Frequently, the two groups are housed in different offices and report to different supervisors.

Because study-abroad and career staffers are unlikely to meet over the water cooler, colleges need to be deliberate in their efforts to build connections, says Martin Tillman, a former associate director of career services at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "Campuses have to be proactive," says Mr. Tillman, a higher-education consultant and longtime expert on career development and international study.

Developing a Narrative

At Rice, an unusual administrative setup meant that both offices reported to Ms. Matherly. Even there, however, Ms. Matherly says she had to work to build bridges between the two, through small but concrete steps, like inviting career counselors to contribute a section to the university's study-abroad handbook about doing a job search from overseas. Employees from each department also attended relevant workshops put on by the other.

A number of institutions and some third-party providers are getting involved in similar efforts to help students translate their study-abroad experience into terms employers can understand. One of those companies, Cultural Experiences Abroad, has fashioned a semester-long career-development course, now offered as a pilot at two of its European sites, in Florence and Paris. The optional program includes pre-arrival reading assignments, Webinars with career consultants, and regular meetings that incorporate experiential exercises and journal writing.

For example, students might participate in business simulations or be asked to do specific tasks, such as applying for a local library membership; they then reflect on cultural distinctions they encountered and the skills they used to navigate those differences.

If the pilot takes off, CEA administrators plan to check back in with students after they return to their home campuses and help them connect with career offices there, says Kevin J.F. Murphy, the Italy academic dean and campus director.

Some colleges have developed their own programs to better integrate international study and career planning. The University of Michigan, for one, offers a dozen panel discussions each year on what it calls "international career pathways," most of which focus on how students can put their overseas experience to use in particular fields, such as global health or the environment.

At the Georgia Institute of Technology—where nearly half of all students have a cooperative-education experience, many overseas—the Work Abroad Program helps place students in international internships and jobs and advises them on marketing such study and work to global employers, says Debbie Gulick, the program's director.

When Ms. Matherly began her work at Rice back in the mid-1990s, she says, she had few models to emulate. Rather than requiring formal training for career and study-abroad staff members, she says she encouraged them to learn more about each other's roles through working together: co-sponsoring panel discussions on international careers, compiling print materials to help guide students in internship and job searches, and leading re-entry programs for students back from overseas study.

A development that helped spur further cooperation, Ms. Matherly says, was growing student interest in working overseas, both before and after graduation. At Rice, she hired students to serve as advisers to their peers who sought internships or work abroad. That's a position she hopes to replicate at the University of Tulsa.

Out of that interest grew a conference and study tour that exposed students to global careers in Asia, which Ms. Matherly continued when she moved to Tulsa in 2006. Another effort, a summer nanotechnology-research program for freshmen and sophomores in Japan, earned National Science Foundation support.

Built into the NanoJapan program, as the latter is known, are weekly sessions aimed at getting students to think about the real-world skills they are learning overseas. As part of discussions and writing assignments, Ms. Matherly and other leaders encourage students to think about questions such as, "Why do research abroad, rather than at a well-regarded university closer to home?" (One answer might be to understand how people may bring different sets of assumptions to research problems, depending on their cultural background.)

In one instance, a missed tram in a small Japanese town became a lesson in using problem-solving skills in an unfamiliar environment, in which students knew little of the local language.

In workshops and in one-on-one advising, Ms. Matherly and her advisers try to break down overseas experiences to help students see how what they learned abroad can been adapted to the workplace.

"We want to help students develop a narrative for employers, not just give them a list of internships and activities," says Jacqueline Hing, interim director of the Center for Student Professional Development at Rice. "It puts their experience abroad in terms of what an employer is looking for."

Adapting Perspectives

Ms. Hing's own experience abroad, helping Rice's then-sister institution, the International University Bremen, set up its career-placement office, made her more attuned to opportunities overseas and gave her firsthand insight into cultural and workplace differences.

A growing number of career counselors are going abroad, through the Fulbright International Education Administrators Program. When Ms. Matherly won a short-term grant to study in Germany through the program, in 1996, she says she was the only one of her group of 15 from the career side. Last year one of her staff members at Tulsa went on the same program; that time, half of the participants were from career services, she says.

Still, Ms. Matherly says it can sometimes be easier to get career counselors on board than study-abroad advisers, because it is a natural extension of career-services work to help students put their experiences in terms relevant to employers. Study-abroad advisers have been slower to adapt, she says, because they tend to deal with students on the front end of the process.

But Mr. Tillman, the higher-education consultant, says that may be changing, as students focus more intently on job prospects in the economic downturn. "We're moving from the idea that study abroad is inherently a good thing—which it is," he says, "to thinking more about the utilitarian benefits of going overseas."