While studying abroad can be intimidating and uncomfortable at times, returning to school after a semester abroad comes with its own challenges. Many students struggle to articulate their experience and have trouble adjusting to life back at school after a thrilling semester in a foreign country.
In the fall of 2017, Denison hosted a state-wide conference, “Lessons from Abroad,” for returnee students from study abroad. They ranged from sophomores to seniors who had studied abroad in France, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Scotland, and other countries. Some had been back for a couple of months; for others, it had been more than a year. The conference helped students assess the value of their time abroad and articulate it with others.
Angela Manginelli, the director of Alumni and Diversity Initiatives for the American Institute for Foreign Study, studied abroad in London in 2001 and is still unpacking that experience. When she returned to the U.S., she felt like the only one who wasn’t excited to be back, like no one understood what she was going through.
She said, “Your returnee process is just that—it’s a process.” She added, “You might have some very strong opinions about America now that you’re back. You may have returned to a very different America.” Many students in the audience nodded in agreement. The good news, Manginelli commented, is that “you speak the language of global understanding.” That’s a rare thing, she explained, as less than 10% of the U.S. population studies abroad.
Two education-abroad coordinators from Ohio State University led a session titled “Globally Focused Futures.” They spoke about ways in which students can go abroad again. These options include Fulbright, career paths in Foreign Service, the Peace Corps, teaching English abroad, going to graduate school abroad, and pursuing careers in international education.
At the end of the presentation, they reviewed the major takeaways: “Far more opportunities exist than are listed here, reach out to your allies in international education, start early!” As the presenters packed up, students excitedly chatted amongst each other. Many were interested in the Peace Corps, while others were applying for Fulbright scholarships. A few lingered after the presentation to get the contact information of the Peace Corps recruiter.
Denison’s Kirsten Fox, from the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, led a session titled, “From Passports to Professions: How to Articulate the Value of your Study Abroad Experience.” Fox showed how some of the benefits of studying abroad, such as language skills, independence, understanding different perspectives, and interacting with local communities, could be translated into valuable characteristics for employers. These characteristics include the ability to work independently, being adaptable to situations of change, understanding cultural difference in the workplace, and applying information in new or broader contexts.
Leadership, initiative, and problem solving are attributes that employers often look for, and are intrinsic parts of study abroad. Fox said that, just by virtue of going abroad, “you practice your leadership, show your willingness to take initiative, and become expert problem solvers.”
Study abroad experiences can be strengths in job interviews. Fox advised students to think of a story that they can utilize. Many abroad experiences, she commented, will be extremely relevant to questions about managing conflict, adapting to change, and working in a team.
Keynote speaker Robert Abbott, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Denison, talked about his experiences with travel and how they helped him excel in his field of global digital strategy and design consultancy.
Abbott’s first experience traveling outside the U.S. was on a service mission to Kenya. He was struck by the way in which his time in Kenya challenged his preconceived notions of Africa. In Kenya, he found people who spoke three languages and had a passion for living and learning—it didn’t feel like what he’d pictured a “third-world country” to be.
Later in his career, he found himself on an assignment to advertise a brand in various countries. He realized just how important it was to have a grasp of that country’s culture. He gave the example of China’s one-child policy. “This country,” he said, “is one largely without aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. This kind of knowledge is significant when considering how to market a brand in China.”
Abbott shared a Steve Jobs quote that he found to be particularly relevant. “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” These dots, Abbott commented, come from lived experiences. They come from study abroad, travel, curiosity, and openness to new experiences.