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What's in a Story? Talking about Study Abroad at Interviews.

By Kevin J.F. Murphy, Italy Academic Dean & Campus Director
Recently there's been a lot of talk about how international education can give students an advantage when they enter the global workplace. A mass of research also shows very clearly that many employers value the skills that students can develop while studying abroad. But when it comes to job interview time, how many students are really going to be able to put into words the many benefits of study abroad? How many of them are going to be able to sell their overseas study as something that makes them a better employee? And is anyone helping them do this? 
Mock Interviews
To focus on these questions, we organised a workshop for students at the CEA Global Campus in Rome and Florence during the most recent International Eduation Week. Given that nothing is more effective than a 'real world' experience, we also conducted some mock interviews to help students practice how to articulate their study abroad experiences to potential employers. 
Tough Questions!
The questions in those interviews included these: Why did you study abroad? Why did you choose Italy? What made you choose that location/program? How exactly did that experience help you develop any of the skill sets or qualities that we're looking for at our company? How exactly did it help you develop leadership skills, team-working skills, or the ability to work comfortably and successfully with an international clientele? What did you gain from taking your courses abroad? What did you gain from extra-curricular activities abroad? 
Needless to say, these questions aren't easily answered if you're not prepared. So students struggle to answer them well if they haven't had structured opportunities to reflect upon their experience and rehearse some narratives that describe in a thoughtful way the positive gains that studying abroad gave them. 
Create your Stories
So how should you prepare for an interview? One of the first steps is to develop a collection of stories about your time abroad. The stories could focus on things like:
  • your successes (any notable grades, awards or recognition while you were abroad or on your return?)
  • your coursework abroad (what kind of program, how did it relate to your major, who it was accredited by, what emphasis did it place on language acquisition, and on independent research if any?)
  • your professional experience abroad (did you do service learning, a work placement or an internship?)
  • your collaborative highlights (were you on the student committee, voluntary teams or participate in student mentoring during or after the experience?)
  • your local community highlights (were you in voluntary teams with locals, did you interview locals for academic fieldwork, did you engage in language exchange with local students?)
  • personal experiences that gave you insight into local culture (best challenges overcome, best local friendships made?)
Write out some answers and keep them short. Maintain a business-like tone so not to trivialise overseas study, and stick exclusively to your successes and accomplishments. Make sure that you're armed with the kinds of stories that will be useful in each case, depending on the nature of the company and the particular competencies required by the position that you're after. 
In conclusion, what your stories should illustrate is how your experience made you a better candidate for the job you're after. So instead of talking about how much 'fun' it was in Rome, or that CEA 'broadened your horizons', craft your stories around specific, positive experiences from the checklist above that illustrate your communication skills, your greater maturity even in unfamiliar environments, your tolerance for diversity and change, your openness to alternative viewpoints, and your ability both to lead and to work as part of a team. Prepare and reflect your stories ahead of time and they will be personal, considered and compelling. 
If anyone reading this hasn't studied abroad yet, I hope that this article presents a useful guide to how, and why, you should exploit the range of opportunities that overseas study will present. 
One last tip. Don't forget to leverage your study abroad experience in your resume too. But that's another story...
Kevin Murphyspoke at a session called 'Making the Most of It: How Study Abroad Programs Help Train Students for the Global Workplace' at the EAIE 2011 Conference in Copenhagen, with Dr. Scott Blair (CEA Global Education, France) and Dr. Cheryl Matherly from the University of Tulsa Center for Global Education. Follow Kevin on twitter: @KevinJFMurphy

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