By Alessandra Capossela
Applying for a job can seem like a daunting task, especially when there’s a laundry list of skills that your potential employer is hoping to see. Where do you start acquiring those skills? How do you know if you already have the skills? And even if you do, how do you make it known to others? There are, of course, many ways to prepare yourself for the workforce. However, there is one in particular that I found helped me the most: I pursued work experience abroad after college.
Shortly after finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I decided to take a job teaching English in South Korea. Not only did I get to put my newly acquired TESL/TESOL certificate to use, but working overseas allowed me to develop many of the skills that potential employers were looking for back home.
Here’s what I learned from my international work experience:
Flexibility and Adaptability
Starting a job abroad, you may feel like everything you know has been turned on its head: the expectations of the workplace; the dynamic between you, your boss, and your coworkers; even the hours you are expected to put in. While it can be stressful at first, you may be surprised how well you begin to adapt. Suddenly, the things that seemed so strange have become commonplace as you settle into a new way of doing things. Likewise, life in a new country can bring a lot of unanticipated things to deal with, both in your job and in life in general. Being able to roll with the punches while maintaining the quality of your work is a great skill to have and will help you to more effectively manage future curve balls that come your way.
“How am I going to get to the train station if I can’t speak the language or read any of the signs?” While living abroad, you may often have to tap into your inner problem-solver to find ways of accomplishing what may have been a routine task at home. Sometimes it requires developing new skills (learning a new alphabet or being able to ask simple questions in a new language), making use of the resources around you (asking a coworker or finding a helpful website), and sometimes it requires being willing to figure it out as you go along (“I think I know which bus to take…I’ll make sure to leave early so I can backtrack if need be”). While originally used in a concrete scenario, such as finding your way to a particular destination, problem-solving skills can often be translated to other situations later on. Just the fact that you were able to solve the problem in the first place should give you confidence that you could likely do it again!
Nothing tests your ability to communicate like having to enact to a three-year-old why she shouldn’t bite her friends (true story – I blame my lack of Korean-language skills at the time). However, communication skills go beyond grappling with a potential language barrier. Working abroad gives you the opportunity to interact with people who may have a different way of doing or thinking about things. This can be a challenge, especially when you are the exception in your approach to a situation. Nevertheless, it’s also a great chance to practice open-mindedness, negotiation skills, and the ability to effectively express your point of view while also understanding where others are coming from. It’s not always a smooth experience, but it makes similar situations easier in the future.
Cultural Competency and Intercultural Skills
This is something that is popping up more and more as a desirable asset. Many fields are “going global” in one way or another and having staff members with first-hand international experience, language skills, and a sensitivity to cultural differences is becoming more attractive. Spending a significant amount of time in a country and a culture that is not your own is one of the best ways of developing that skill set.
The great thing about acquiring skills like these in an international setting is that I have unique examples of times that I was able to employ them, usually with some measure of success. Possessing the skills and also having an interesting way of showcasing them can help you stand out to potential employers as they sift through large pools of applicants.
There are several reasons why I chose to work abroad after college and, to be honest, developing employable skills wasn’t at the top of my list at the time. Still, I have reaped the benefits of working abroad, and it’s turned out to be one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences of my life.
Alessandra Capossela, M.A., is a student advisor at the University of Vermont Continuing and Distance Education.