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Study Abroad is an Investment Not a Vacation

study abroad is an investment

Last week I sat around a table in Chelsea overlooking the Manhattan skyline, surrounded by a group of university alumni brought together by an Asia-focused study abroad program we all participated in some 5-6 years ago. I hadn't seen anyone since our college graduation in 2011 and the results were extraordinary.

One of us, who spent a semester at the National University of Singapore (NUS), had gone on to study at Columbia Law and earn a place in an international merges and acquisitions and capital markets firm. He had been staffed on several Asia and Latin America deals and was able to actively draw on experiences he had many years ago in the region to better operate on a multi-cultural New York/Southeast Asia or New York/Hong Kong projects.

The essential message was: "Invest in yourself! Invest in this experience!" And of course: "It's going to change your life."

Another had spent several years teaching in China after graduation, and now runs the marketing efforts of a major university's overseas campuses where he utilizes his fluent Mandarin on a professional and personal basis. He is forging major roadways into the international education space, in huge part due to his passion for study abroad.

I had gone on to land two consecutive jobs as an unconventional candidate, one in management consulting and the other in international sales and business development, largely in part due to my extensive global experience that I initially earned from study abroad and international internships and research grants while still in university.

Many of us remarked that close friendships we had formed in university were due to study abroad. Ironically, I had just purchased airline tickets to see my best friend in Toronto, who I came to know during my study abroad semester in China, and had confirmed another trip to Singapore to see friends I met during another program at NUS. Another friend noted that, now as a lawyer, several of his closest friends in New York were people he came to know very well during his semester in Asia and, due to those bonds formed in a foreign environment, felt more natural to stay in touch with after graduation.

How To Make the Most of Your Investment in Study Abroad

Collectively reflecting on our post-graduate experiences and our career trajectories to date, all of us saw a clear correlation from both a personal and professional perspective to our experiences studying abroad during university.

Study Australia

There was one person who joined us who wasn't actually an alumni, but a current study and scholarship recipient who was passing through New York on his way to a program in South Africa.

Our advice for him was profuse (and we probably overwhelmed the poor kid who just thought he was headed to Cape Town for a good time for 4 months). The essential message was: "Invest in yourself! Invest in this experience!" And of course: "It's going to change your life." More concretely, these are the six principles we shared:

1. Treat the academics seriously

I recently had to order my official undergraduate transcripts for a fellowship I'm applying for and was relieved to remember that I got straight A's during my semester in China (which was the hardest semester of my life actually, due to the non-American grading curves that award A's to only 1 or 2 students in the entire class, with more everyone receiving C's, a common practice in the rest of the non-grade-inflating world).

In the spirit of acknowledging study abroad as an investment, perform well in your classes and maintain the integrity of a strong overall academic record, including those months away.

What would have been crushing would be to see a lackluster performance during my overseas semester that would signal to all future graduate schools and fellowship programs for the rest of my life that I was a slacker. In the spirit of acknowledging study abroad as an investment, perform well in your classes and maintain the integrity of a strong overall academic record, including those months away.

2. Read outside of the classroom

The more you understand your environment, the more interesting and meaningful your abroad experience is going to be.

Israel

Outside of your academic program, try picking an autobiography of a major historical figure and a non-fiction travelogue about the region. Read a few articles summarizing the history of the country and find a couple local blogs or Instagram accounts to follow.

These simple engagement exercises can make all the difference in going from "Oh wow, that's such a pretty town" to "Humph, have you noticed this street is actually named after the country's most oppressive dictator from the 1750s? What does that say about this town or its history?"

3. Learn outside of the classroom and connect to your professional aspirations

Beyond schoolwork and socializing, try to find an outlet for a potentially career-related interest of yours. Volunteer at a school one day a week, ask for an internship at a local company you admire, write for a local English newspaper, shadow a manager at a company relevant to your major. Any additional experience you can put on your resume or reference in a job interview makes you more competitive in the long-run.

4. Consider Pre-Professional Programs in the U.S.

You could also look at doing a program in a major city in the United States that has a professional-preparatory angle, like General Assembly's semester offerings, which let you intern in real tech companies in New York and San Francisco or learn about government and politics in D.C. Through these programs, you can learn crucial skills that are sought-after in the post-graduate job market.

Make it a goal to spend a weekend outside of your host city once a month.

Though this technically lacks the "abroad" component of study abroad, going from a small college town in Wisconsin to San Francisco is just as radical as a semester in London or Buenos Aires.

If this idea appeals to you but you still want to spend your semester overseas, they also offer week-long programs between university semesters that can kick-start your skill set in New York, London, or Sydney.

5. Travel out of town

One of the things that tends to happen in study abroad (mostly in non-European countries, students in London and Spain get around pretty well) is that everyone falls into a local routine, which is beneficial in its own way, but don't explore the rest of the country or region. Make it a goal to spend a weekend outside of your host city once a month.

6. Invest in your friendships

Invest in your study abroad frienships

The bonds formed in a completely new environment, traveling together on weekends, studying together, and handling foreign and challenging academics are incredibly strong.

Besides the given time you'll spend together, make the effort to get to know everyone in your program. It's especially fun to make friends with other international students and, of course, the locals.

The potential to make life-long friends is extremely high and when it does occur, rewarding from both a personal and, later on, professional perspective.

Study Abroad Has Professional Rewards

Some of this advice might sound trite, but it's coming from the mouths of professionals who are now many years into our career paths, standing at a sound distance with which to look back on our international experiences as college students and identify the value.

We clearly see a return on investment that came from our time abroad, but we also realized that we were the type of students who went into those programs with a clear head and more than just a plain enthusiasm for getting off campus and partying in a foreign country.

Examine your options and ask: "Is this program set up to have a long-term impact on me? Am I maximizing my learning potential? Are the type of people this program attracts the kind of people I see becoming life-long friends?"

We were passionate about the academic programs offered in those countries, many of us had studied the language for a few years beforehand, and they were smaller offerings where we received a high degree of personalized attention from our professors and other university administrators.

For example, just a few weeks ago, I received an email from my Chinese professor from my semester in China. He was reaching out to former students about a book he's currently writing and also wanted to see how I was doing and if I was still using my Chinese. That's the kind of bond developed in a smaller, more academically rigorous, and subsequently more meaningful program.

How Will You Approach Study Abroad?

Therefore my point is: Approaching study abroad with an "investment" perspective should not only be employed just before and during your experience, but it should ideally inform the actual country and program you select many months before departure.

Examine your options and ask: "Is this program set up to have a long-term impact on me? Am I maximizing my learning potential? Are the type of people this program attracts the kind of people I see becoming life-long friends?"

By answering these questions at the onset and then continuing to return to them throughout your time abroad, you can optimize what concrete takeaways you achieve during study abroad that will continue to enhance your resume, as well as your outlook and personal network, for years to come.

Photo Credits: Studying Spanish, Gaby Chiha, Martha Landry, and Courtney Dorazio.
Elaina Giolando

A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-somethings. She currently works as an international project manager and has traveled to over 50 countries and 6 continents for both work and play. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. You'll find her writing here on Go Overseas and also on Business Insider, Fortune, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.