Why international experience is important for graduates

A recent poll suggests that lack of international experience might be holding back British graduates.

When it comes to post-graduate life, international experience is often cited as a key factor for getting and keeping that dream job. But according to a recent poll, it seems that a lack of that global knowledge is actually holding recent graduates back, particularly in Britain. 

In an increasingly global market for graduate employees, large corporations and public sector employers are looking for students with global and cultural competence. “Multinational employers, and increasingly employers of all kinds, require their workforce to work readily and confidently across worldwide operations, using a global outlook to consider new opportunities and challenges”, was the conclusion of a report looking at global graduates. And a 2009 briefing paper from the International Institute of Education, which recorded the results of interviews conducted with 200 international business leaders, showed that 60% of respondents said that study abroad was valued when they were hiring and promoting employees. 90% of those leaders had studied abroad themselves.

So it’s clear that schools and universities need to take a global view of education and students’ prospects. There are signs that this is happening: in the summer of 2016, for example, 4,303 UK sixth formers received International Baccalaureate diplomas, a 10.4 percent increase on 2015. But how do secondary-level options for international study translate into global experience?

Studying abroad

Studying abroad is an excellent and obvious way to gain international experience. Increasing numbers of the top universities are scattered across the globe, as evidenced by the 2017 THE World Universities rankings, which means the opportunities for students to study in a foreign country are growing.  What’s more, it may not be as difficult to grasp those opportunities as some students fear. We’ve written before about how valuable international students are to the UK; likewise, UK students are valuable to universities in other countries. According to NAFSA, “the 1,043,839 international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $32.8 billion and supported more than 400,000 jobs to the U.S. economy during the 2015-2016 academic year… The economic contributions of international students are in addition to the immeasurable academic and cultural value these students bring to our campuses and local communities.” 

There’s also plenty of funding available to students who want to study abroad. At Harvard, for example, international students are eligible for the same amount of aid as US students. In fact, many of the USA’s top universities, including Duke, Stanford, Williams College and Wellesley, are among the most generous in international student financial aid; there are scholarships out there.  

But how exactly does studying abroad add to a graduate’s employability? According to the Wall Street Journal, as many routine tasks become automated or outsourced, employers are increasingly looking for candidates with “soft skills” such as the ability to communicate, problem-solve and get along with co-workers. All three of these skills are almost inevitably acquired in the process of moving to a foreign country and adapting to life in a different culture. Moving abroad requires flexibility, endurance, independence and the ability to adapt to different systems and structures. It offers the chance to see global issues from a different perspective and gain understanding of the country you’re in and the country you come from.

However, studying abroad is not an option for everyone, nor is it an automatic ticket to cultural competence and greater employability. Some recruiters are suspicious of what is known as “academic tourism”, and it’s important to be able to show how international experience has strengthened your abilities and skills. What’s more, students shouldn’t focus on international education to the potential exclusion of their best interests; they may feel they want the continuity and stability of staying within their system, building networks that will last after graduation, and gaining certain qualifications that are not internationally transferrable. The question is, how do students who study in their home countries also gain this all-important global awareness?

Other options

Exchange programs offer the opportunity to spend shorter amounts of time studying at a foreign university. In Europe, the ERASMUS program allows students to spend 3 to 12 months at a university in one of the 37 participating European countries.

The ability to speak a foreign language also increases your opportunities, your choices and your value as an employee and demonstrates your awareness of and willingness to engage with another culture. This is important for native English speakers: 60% of the world’s population speak at least two languages, but statistically people from English speaking countries are much more likely to be monolingual, putting them at a disadvantage when competing in the global recruitment market.  

Students may want to consider taking a degree in languages or studying a language concurrently with their degree. Many universities have language centers where students can take subsidized classes or allow students to take a foreign language as part of a dual degree or for a certain amount of credit.

We want graduates to feel that the world is their oyster. To help make that true, they need to engage with it whether through travel, study, language or all three. Then they can truly call themselves global graduates.

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