Meaningful international experience is not limited to study abroad alone
“If you really want to nail down your intercultural competencies in the context of your profession, go abroad as a graduate”
Maria Baum is currently teaching abroad in Ecuador with UBELONG, after studying abroad, obtaining a master’s degree in international education from NYU and working for IIE in New York. She writes about how her experience while studying acted as a catalyst for working abroad, and the value of heading overseas post-graduation.
How can we get more Americans to study abroad in college? This question stands at the forefront of the international education sector and has prompted a range of responses in the United States, but the opportunity for meaningful international experience is not limited to study abroad alone.
According to the Institute of International Education, less than 10% of US college students will study abroad before graduating and of that 10%, approximately 97% will go for just one semester or less. In other words, very few Americans will gain international experience in college and if they do, it’s probably not enough.
When I studied abroad as an undergraduate in Spain, I didn’t return with a full-fledged international skill-set or anything close to fluency in Spanish; however, it was the catalyst for future overseas experience post-college. I went on to do an internship in Ireland, teach abroad in Spain for two years and pursue research as a graduate student in the Dominican Republic and China.
“When I studied abroad as an undergraduate, I didn’t return with a full-fledged international skill-set; however, it was the catalyst for future overseas experience post-college”
It was the later experiences, especially teaching abroad as a young professional, that solidified my cross-cultural competencies and fluency in a foreign language. Study abroad can prepare college graduates to return overseas as professionals with a more established understanding of their field and the ability to identify global skills and experiences necessary for career success.
After completing my master’s degree in international education and working for IIE in New York City, overseas experience has never been more relevant. Like many fields, international education demands competencies that are simply not obtainable in a classroom or office stateside.
This October I am teaching abroad in Quito, Ecuador with a Washington DC based organization called UBELONG to further develop my Spanish skills, gain a better understanding of education in Latin America and experience first-hand what overseas program options are like for college graduates.
So just how many US college graduates are going abroad? No one quite knows. CIEE’s Teach Abroad Program will send about 1,000 US college graduates overseas in 2015/2016. The US Department of State’s Fulbright US Student Program sends roughly 1,900 participants abroad each year and the vast majority are recent graduates. TEFL International sent approximately 220,000 graduates to teach overseas from 2005 to 2015, and approximately half were American. These figures are joined by dozens more program providers sending recent graduates to teach, intern, volunteer and work abroad each year.
“It would be wonderful if there was a report that collected data on post-graduate activities of US graduates the way that the Open Doors report collects data on college study abroad participants”
Dr Vija G. Mendelson, Director of Experiential Programs at Academic Programs International (API) says that our field lacks a coordinated effort to capture college graduates going abroad. “It would be wonderful if there was a report that collected data on post-graduate activities of US graduates the way that the Open Doors report collects data on college study abroad participants. Unfortunately we don’t know of any resource with the ability to do this,” said Mendelson.
Unlike study abroad, there is no unified mechanism or organization that tracks young professionals going abroad as a whole. For now, this makes it difficult to capture both the qualitative and quantitative impact. However, program providers say participation is increasing and the opportunities are expanding.
CIEE’s Teach Abroad Program for college graduates offers paid, one-year teaching positions for US graduates and young professionals. The program began in 1997 with a teaching program in China, which was followed by programs in Thailand, Chile, Spain, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and Peru.
Stephen Bush, Director of Teach Abroad Programs at CIEE, says the number of participants has steadily increased over the last several years, attracting both study abroad returnees and those that never had the chance to go abroad before graduating. “Many teach abroad participants didn’t study abroad in college because of the cost and their academic schedule did not allow for it. Teaching abroad gives them another chance to gain international experience without the cost of study abroad,” he said.
“Going abroad after college is significantly different from studying abroad because of the much higher level of independence and integration. Participants have an increased responsibility of navigating intercultural challenges in the workplace with foreign colleagues that they may not have encountered as a student,” explained Bush.
Julia Aube, a recent graduate from Colombia University’s occupational therapy program, decided to volunteer abroad at an outpatient clinic called CRECER in Ecuador before beginning work in the US.
“As a healthcare professional in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, I can only provide the best care by having more than just a surface understanding of other cultures and languages. Speaking the language and understanding the culture of my patients comes not from studying it, but from living it,” says Aube.
“Working right after college is a safe and practical decision,” Aube says. “However, if you really want to nail down your intercultural competencies in the context of your profession, go abroad as a graduate.”
As the international education community continues to closely track and expand study abroad opportunities, it would behoove us to take a closer look at what thousands of U.S. college graduates are doing to gain international experience and how this might compare to or complement study abroad in college.