By Alexa Hyman
In this competitive economy, college students everywhere are looking to obtain an edge, a unique element, a resume-builder that sets them apart and gives them an advantage. Throughout my college career, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many successful alumni return to campus and share the importance of finding creative ways to word cover letters, stock résumés and convince prospective employers that we’d be a valuable asset to their company. And while this remains true and relative, I believe this quest to individualize ourselves moves beyond landing a stellar internship or being an honors student; it moves beyond anything that permits us to sit comfortably within the bubbles we’ve been raised and educated. It is our job as striving critical thinkers, as rounded and knowledge-seeking individuals to broaden our perspectives, to gain intercultural skills and to break outside of that bubble in some way. After studying and interning abroad in both Rome and Sydney during two semesters of my career at Albion, I am convinced that off-campus education is the most valuable opportunity that college students are offered. Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t think twice about doing it too:
Traveling abroad will make you see the world in a multidimensional way
We gain a powerful advantage when we can approach problems, think critically, or argue an opinion with the ability to first observe it objectively from a multitude of angles. In the same way that a lawyer would lose a case without considering how the opposition might dismantle his or her argument, we too must prepare and back our beliefs with more than one perspective.
In order to add expert knowledge to my own multicultural observations, I spoke with a professional who believes in inter-cultural benefits so profoundly that she weaves them into her career. French professor Dr. Dianne Guenin-Lelle, who studied abroad in the south of France, focuses much of her research and teaching on the cultural understanding and importance of French Louisiana. Dr. Guenin-Lelle believes that expanding our comfort zones and understanding diversity outside of our “American bias” are both key components to leading a fulfilling life.
“So much of [the] conflict and tension in the world come from us not understanding one another and being able to work through our differences,” Guenin-Lelle said.
The truth is that we’ve all been raised in some sort of bubble—unfortunately, most of us are still living comfortably within it. When we sit in these ivory-tower bubbles, we limit ourselves and we limit our potential. With exposure to cultural differences, our beliefs and ideals are challenged, forcing us to accept that our way isn’t always the right way. We begin to no longer see through a narrow lens, but through a cultivated one—one that is rational, contemplative and mindful of bias.
“My hope is that the students who study—who really have these experiences at Albion that are international and multicultural— [that] they are just much more at home in the world,” Guenin-Lelle said. “And they see opportunities instead of walls in order to interact and to live life fully and to work effectively and with a deeper understanding and appreciation for difference.”
In the Fall of 2013, I jetted off to Rome thinking the experience would be just as blissful, romantic and uncomplicated as it was for Lizzie McGuire. But when I arrived and moved into an off-campus apartment in the tiny Roman neighborhood of Trastevere, alone, I felt my self-assured independence begin to waver. I was no longer within my comfort zone and I quickly experienced a humility that has grounded me since. I made friends from all parts of the world and from many different backgrounds and I began to see the world from their eyes. I heard them express emotions in unfamiliar ways, question beliefs that I thought true, and think about bigger issues from opposing directions. I became less quick to judge, criticize or assume. And I returned home with a greater patience to learn, a level head to reconsider and a surprising level of comfort in uncomfortable situations.
Venturing out into the world with the mindset that your own cultural norms, predisposed ideas and viewpoints are the right ones is like barging into a lions den and demanding that the beast sits–you’re going to get eaten alive! To train ourselves to think beyond the bubble, to broaden the mind is to live peacefully in a diverse world and gain all that it has to offer. In seeking an expanded perspective and understanding, we begin to, not only recognize and understand others, but to better understand ourselves. We position ourselves to thrive when we can enter a global marketplace post-graduation, confident in who we are and equipped to face the opposition that we will inevitably find.
You will set yourself apart professionally
In an increasingly globalized economy, the modern organization has been forced to adjust their resources and capabilities for doing business on a global scale. According to a study published in 2013 by The International Research Foundation (TIRF), today’s employers are under pressure to hire employees who are “culturally astute” and apt to succeed in a global workplace. A 2011 QS Global Employer Survey, which analyzed responses of 10,000 CEOs and hiring managers, reported that sixty percent indicated an international experience among applicants is valuable.
Albion College ‘05 alumna Samata Singhi, found her study abroad experience in England to be just as immensely pivotal personally and professionally. Singhi, who majored in chemistry and economics, studied abroad for a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her study abroad not only inspired her senior thesis topic, but also led her back to London to pursue a masters program in Health Economics and Health Policy. This path led her to break into the field she was truly passionate about: health care.
“My education and experience at the LSE helped me obtain an internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva,” Singhi said. “During that time, I learned about how health disparities, health problems and health policy are managed at a global scale.”
For Singhi, who is a current resident in Child Neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the international experience prompted a lifelong interest in health policy and gave her a global perspective that has offered her insight to obtaining better care for her patients today.
“In my opinion, there is so much to be gained from experiencing other cultures, interacting with people from other countries, and learning how social, political and economic contexts are deeply intertwined with our ideologies and moral frameworks,” Singhi said.” More than anything, it affords them the opportunity to make friends from various walks of life and understand different perspectives, which is always a strong skill to have regardless of what profession [or] career one plans to pursue.”
Working in another country is eye-opening. While in Sydney, I interned at an arts and culture magazine called Time Out and not only gained knowledge in a field of interest but was able to observe and experience journalism from a culturally different perspective. After about a month of working in an Australian office, I began to cultivate this rounded sense of Australian versus American culture and society. With this understanding, I became much more comfortable working and contributing to it. When I returned and began to reflect, I realized that I had obtained this ability to step back and see a working dynamic– not from the single perspective that I could have only gained while working in America– but one that culled together the viewpoints of multiple cultures, including my own. I found myself more confident in conversation, in my abilities and in knowing that what I had to contribute to the world was valuable.
As Dr. Debra Peterson of the CIE office put it, returning from these experiences gets you “to reflect on your experience and to begin packaging yourself for those next experiences.” It is in this packaging, this retrospection that a student begins to, not only understand the experiences, but themselves.
The role of our college educations are not to tie us down, or just to push us to pursue a career because it’s relevant in today’s economy, or to mold us into some generic graduate with a flawless CV. If that’s what you think college is all about, you’re selling yourself short.
College gives us our first taste of independence and responsibility; it holds inspiration if you go looking for it and it offers us invaluable resources like passionate professors who will push us to be the best version of ourselves. College is the beginning of a lifelong journey to find out who we are as individuals.
It’s not enough to spend these four years living, communicating and studying within environments that don’t challenge us. It would be a waste not to think and work beyond the inevitable boundaries of our institution and strive to understand the world we live in and not just this small microcosm of Albion, Michigan. If we want to succeed as young professionals and contributing members of society, it is critical to understand the globalized markets we’re entering and the diversity we’re bound to face after graduation.
Multicultural immersion pushes a student to think, to grow, to adapt to foreign territory. In my personal experience, studying abroad reminded me what it is to be human. I was challenged, misunderstood, often forced to think outside of what I had known to be true my entire life. In witnessing other cultures, I began to see other human beings—not for the color of their skin or the language that they spoke or the country that they’re from—but as another human— thinking, growing and also adapting. This comprehension of my own humanity—this realization that the way I think is not always right—gave me an expanded capacity to understand humanity as a whole. It gave me humility and patience—a sense of peacefulness in a world that can often feel chaotic but, once explored, begins to make more sense.
Studying and interning abroad altered the way I approach my work, the way I contribute to discussions in class and think critically about different topics. In a broader sense, it made me want to pursue what I was passionate about and contribute to the betterment of society. Living, working or studying in a foreign place forces one to zoom out of the small worlds he or she lives in. And for each person who dares to experience it, they are given a rare, multi-dimensional way of thinking, an understanding that prepares them for the diversity that exists in and out of a globalizing workplace, and a humble value of the world and the different people who, too, call it home.
Photo by Alexa Hyman