Going abroad for study or work is often a life-changing experience – both personally and professionally. Being immersed in a new culture challenges our ways of thinking, brings concepts learned in class to life, and offers learning opportunities that may not be available at home. Here are seven reasons to go abroad as a student – and some tips to help make it happen.
One of the widely reported benefits of education abroad is the development of increased self-awareness. In a 2014 survey of 120 Canadians who had studied abroad, conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), 85% of respondents agreed that the experience increased their self-awareness. Returnees also report intercultural awareness and broad-based knowledge acquisition as other main areas of growth.
Education is your passport to the world
Students often find that new insights and learning developed while abroad helps inform their study interests and define their career objectives. The advantage of going abroad as an exchange student is that in most cases your institution will recognize the credits you obtain abroad. However, it pays to plan ahead. If you are at the beginning of your degree, check into the requirements of your institution, as some departments may only provide credit for elective courses.
If you are unsure about diving into a full semester right away, a short program of a few weeks over the summer might be right for you. Short-term programs can make education abroad accessible to students on a limited budget or mature students with family commitments. Or going abroad through a field school or field study might be just the ticket. The advantage of these programs is that they offer a hands-on learning experience that is guided by a faculty member and attended by other students from your home institution. Navigating the new surroundings of your host country with a group from home makes for a great shared adventure.
If your institution will not provide course credit for your time abroad, consider a study abroad experience which takes you outside of the classroom: Explore a volunteer or teach-abroad experience, an internship between semesters, or even during your March break. Your résumé will look great, you will return with unique international skills, and your course credits will be intact.
Support is available
Teachers, parents, guidance counsellors and students who have gone abroad can all help you to plan your adventure. Check with your institution about exchange opportunities so that you aren’t paying international student fees to go abroad, and explore what scholarships are available to fund your experience. Try searching online for sites with information about funding for education abroad. Visit the CBIE Student Centre Featured Scholarships page (http://istudentcanada.ca/outbound/featured-scholarships/) to find funding that could help you reach your goal.
Many employers value international experience and the skills that you are able to build while abroad. Weigh the pros and cons of this by considering your budget and priorities, and talk to your employer about whether it’s possible to leave your job temporarily or even continue working from overseas. You may be surprised by their flexibility. Alternatively, you may be able to find work abroad as you study to gain international experience, without breaking the bank.
Learn skills for your future career
Some of the most sought-after soft-skills required in today’s knowledge economy are gained or advanced by education abroad experiences. In CBIE’s 2014 survey of Canadian education abroad alumni, nine in 10 respondents said their experience has contributed to their career achievements. What’s more, many education abroad returnees have found global careers as a result of their experiences, with 14% of respondents currently working outside of Canada. Interpersonal skills, cross-cultural competency, adaptability skills, self-awareness, and communication were other top soft-skills that students reported developing as a result of their experience abroad.
Employers value international experiences, too. In a recent survey by Leger Marketing for Universities Canada, eight in 10 Canadian hiring managers said that employees who have cross-cultural knowledge and an understanding of the global marketplace enhance their company’s competitiveness. As one Canadian student who travelled to Mexico explains, “My education abroad experience helped me get my first two jobs. It also gave me the opportunity to do internships abroad during my studies, which provided me with highly regarded experience when I started working. It helped me develop the necessary skills to move up rapidly in the organization.”
Although studying abroad is a natural fit for students in fields such as languages or international business, education abroad opportunities are also on the rise in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, and can provide you with a competitive edge in the job market. Imagine if you could list on your résumé how you participated in an international research team, or if you could talk about the world-class engineering projects you learned about first-hand in another country
Discover new perspective, cultures, and people
Learning more about the world is the number one reason that Canadian students go abroad. Venturing overseas is a sure-fire way to accelerate your knowledge of your host country’s history, culture, and local perspectives. This fact is borne out by research. Of the education abroad alumni who participated in a 2009 CBIE study of 1,267 Canadian students, 94% said they learned more about their host country’s historical and cultural traditions and achievements than if they had remained on campus.
Living with a host family can boost your knowledge of local culture, and provides opportunities to enjoy typical foods, improve local language skills, and develop meaningful and, often, lasting relationships. This experience is best summed up by one Canadian student who said, “Studying abroad is by far one of the best experiences I have had in my post-secondary studies. I learned so much about myself, Canada, and about a variety of different cultures and ways of life. This is not something that can be learned from a book, and I urge everyone to go international and experience the world firsthand. It is worth every minute!”
Learn a language
A foreign language comes alive when you are immersed in conversation and activities with native speakers; there is no better way to learn. Going abroad offers considerable day-to-day language practice that can be complemented by language courses offered by your host institution to hone your language skills. In CBIE’s 2014 survey, eight in 10 students who went to a country where the official language was different than their first language returned with new language skills. Of the students who went to a country where their first language was not widely spoken, over half continue to apply these skills in their current job. As one respondent who went to Germany explains, “I am now working for a German government organization in Canada and my language skills started on my year abroad are one of the most valuable assets I took with me from my undergrad.”
Catch the bug
After getting their feet wet, many students jump right in! Preliminary research suggests that Canadian students who go abroad during high school are much more likely to pursue another global experience later on in life. This is also the case for students who go abroad for the first time during their post-secondary studies. Recalling CBIE’s 2009 study, nearly 10% of students who had an education abroad experience during college/university went back a second time.
Education abroad returnees affirm the benefits of going abroad. What are YOU waiting for? Go ahead and take the plunge.
Karen Rauh, Acting Manager, Research & Special Projects, and Lisa Deacon, Manager, Research & Special Projects at the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE)