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Aligning Students’ Study Abroad Choices with their Career Interests

By: Chelsea Keen, Penn State University

“What made you choose your study abroad program?”

As a career professional who deeply believes that international experiences can be pivotal for students’ career development, this question is integral for the work I do. I frequently challenge students to consider their motivation for selecting a particular international experience and encourage them to verbalize the skills they gained abroad. The way that students typically respond to this simple inquiry is often a missed opportunity for them to articulate the connection between their global experiences and professional interests.

“My friend told me the country was beautiful.”

Rather than choosing a study abroad program based on specific interests (such as a student’s desire to study business in a global economic hub or to learn how another country approaches public policy), students are often influenced more by their friends than their career interests – more by their #squadgoals than by their #careergoals.

In order to effectively prepare students to market their study abroad experiences to future employers, we should start at the very beginning, before they select their study abroad program. As career professionals, we can partner with our colleagues in education abroad offices to proactively encourage first-year and sophomore students to think intentionally about how they can select an international experience that aligns with their career goals.

Identifying Partners & Opportunities

This Fall, Penn State offered its first workshop – which can be readily adapted for other institutions – to prepare students for the Education Abroad Fair. It was strategically titled “Study Abroad and Your #CareerGoals” to begin connecting the two subjects in students’ minds. By bringing together colleagues from college career services offices and education abroad offices, we were able to educate students about how to choose an international experience that could offer skill-building opportunities to enhance their future professional pursuits.

Tailoring the Message for Your Students

The workshop was intentionally designed with the audience of first-year and sophomore students in mind – many of whom are in the beginning stages of exploring both their study abroad options and their career interests. For this reason, we broadly introduced the professional value of international experiences and the marketable skills they could develop abroad – including adaptability, cross-cultural communication, and problem-solving skills, to name a few.

Next, we provided an overview of the types of study abroad opportunities available to Penn State students, and we highlighted several opportunities students should consider in order to develop valuable skills – such as living in a homestay, taking classes at a local university, or pursuing an international internship.

Making it Click

The workshop culminated with an interactive activity that prompted students to identify 1) their area of professional interest 2) the relevant skills they want develop abroad, and 3) which types of study abroad programs they could pursue to develop those professional skills. This activity prepared students to explore potential programs that aligned with their career interests at the Education Abroad Fair or through their own research.

Challenging students to choose a study abroad program that aligns with their career interests not only offered students a new, intentional way of considering their international experiences, but it also provided a valuable opportunity for cross-departmental collaboration. By capitalizing on the expertise of our university partners and proactively supporting our students before they study abroad, we can better equip them to maximize the career benefits of their global experiences.

Chelsea Keen, M.Ed., is a career coach at Penn State University, specializing in promoting professional development through international experiences. She is passionate about empowering students to identify and articulate the valuable, unique skills they bring to the table.  

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