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5 Ways Traveling Abroad as a Student Prepared Me for Career—And Life—Success

Going abroad while you’re young means so much more than art museums and fancy pastries—although those are great, too. It’s a chance to learn about yourself, expand your world, and prepare yourself for the real world. If it’s personal growth you’re looking for, look no further than a exploring a new country. Here’s why.

by Katie Horan

posted September 21, 2020

After studying abroad for a semester in Barcelona during my undergraduate studies, I will unapologetically admit that I became a walking cliché of every study abroad student ever. Yes, it did indeed “change my life” and I will always find a way to thread something about going abroad into every conversation I have in the foreseeable future—because it truly was the best experience of my life. Not only did it open my eyes to a world of possibilities, but it also taught me a lot about myself and the type of person I wanted to be. Immersing yourself in different cultures, trying new foods, making friends from all over the world—that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what you can gain from traveling abroad. What I didn’t expect was all the ways that my experience abroad could benefit me as a student and how it prepared me (and gave me a competitive advantage) for my future career.

1. I became resilient

I was 19 when I traveled outside of the country alone for the first time. After an 8-hour flight, one-day layover in London, and a bumpy bus ride into the city, I finally arrived in Barcelona, my home for the following three months. I was overwhelmed and sleep deprived. On the first evening, I decided to go to the local grocery store near my apartment to pick up some basic necessities. I didn’t have service on my phone, but it was a short walk and I figured I’d find my way back easily without the need for Google Maps. I was wrong. It was dark outside and the odd, diamond-shaped streets seemed to mock me as I saw no recognizable sign of my building. Apples and toilet paper were slipping out of my hands and I almost burst into tears. Miraculously, I wandered into a shop that was still open and asked the owner in broken Catalan, “Carrer de Corsega?” To my relief, he nodded in understanding and pointed me in the right direction of my street. Upon making it back to my apartment safely, I collapsed on my bed in utter exhaustion. I felt a strange flutter of nervousness and excitement as I realized I had never felt so out of my comfort zone. But I was proud, and pleasantly surprised, that I was able to find my way back on my own. During the next three months in Barcelona, I had the absolute best time of my life, but I also had to rely on myself and act more independently than I ever did back home in the US. Resilience when facing adversity was one of the many skills I gained when studying abroad that made me a stronger student. When final exams were looming and project deadlines became overwhelming, I was confident and knew I could persevere.

2. I grew my network and gained new perspective

One of my biggest fears before studying abroad by myself was that I wouldn’t make friends. For the record, this is a very common and normal concern, but I am happy to report that I made lifelong friends whom I couldn’t imagine not being part of my life. Most of the people I met also showed up alone and were eager to make friends, so we were all in the same boat. Traveling together on the weekends and having this incredible shared experience abroad created a strong bond, and now I have friends from India, Sweden, and South Korea. Building my network of friends and peers is incredibly beneficial for not only my personal life, but also my academic and future careers. There’s a lot I can learn from others, whether it’s through advice, mentoring, or learning about the latest trends in my industry within a global context. Communicating with those outside of my own university helped me to have a greater perspective of the world and gain unique insights that are a competitive advantage both in and outside the classroom.

3. I improved my communication skills

During my semester abroad, I significantly improved my communication skills, in both English and Spanish. The benefit of speaking another language is huge—not only does it make your resume stand out, but it also allows you to have conversations and make connections with people who don’t speak your native language. Back at home, I’ve used my foreign language skills to communicate with everyone from the receptionist at my Student Health Center to my Latin American History professor. Making these connections can be an impactful experience that wouldn’t be possible without knowing a foreign language, and you never know where these connections could lead you (i.e. a potential job opportunity or mentorship). More surprisingly, I found that my communication and other soft skills in my native language improved. I became more open-minded and empathetic towards others’ opinions or ideas. After working on group projects with students from unique backgrounds with different approaches, I learned how to be more diplomatic and make sure everyone felt comfortable sharing their ideas. These soft skills are incredibly beneficial as a student and, even more so, in the workplace where teamwork is so important.

4. I discovered exciting education opportunities

When I returned from my semester in Barcelona, I knew I wanted to go back abroad. Initially, I only imagined it would be for vacations, but then I realized I could pursue higher education opportunities outside the US. When that possibility presented itself, I went after it. During my senior year of college at the University of Alabama, I began researching grad schools like crazy and made an Excel spreadsheet of all the different countries I was considering. After writing numerous letters of motivation and studying for the GMAT, I had interviews lined up for Master’s programs in Copenhagen, Milan, Vienna, and Lisbon. Every school wanted to hear about my time abroad, and I, being the self-proclaimed poster child for study abroad, had absolutely no problem sharing my favorite stories and experiences. In the end, I was offered a scholarship at one of the top business schools in Barcelona for a double degree in Marketing and International Management. What’s important to note is that I spent the majority of my interview discussing why I was passionate about international business and how study abroad shaped me as a person. Before applying to grad school, I had no idea the value that schools placed on international experience. I highly recommend taking the opportunity to travel if you have the chance because it can truly make you stand out amongst the competition.

5. I became more qualified for jobs

Like many students, I spent the majority of college wondering what my future career would look like. Internships were an excellent way for me to gain hands-on experience in a field I was interested in and learn about what I did or didn’t like. The spring before my senior year of college, a few of my German friends suggested I apply for a digital marketing internship at one of the largest corporations in Germany. Similar to my grad school interviews, I was asked a great deal about my international experience, which I feel played a major part in me getting the job. The internship was an amazing experience and, even before it ended, I had multiple interview invitations from other German companies who had seen my LinkedIn profile and wanted me to apply to be on their marketing teams. All of this to say, each of my international experiences has opened a door to the next and I am tentatively planning on remaining in Europe post-grad for my first full-time job in the corporate world. Yay!!

It can be difficult to express all the ways that traveling abroad has impacted my life because it feels like it has benefited every single facet of my life. Travel helped me develop as an individual, secure an internship, find my best friends, and now, launch my next chapter as a grad student in Spain. I am a much more well-rounded student and individual thanks to my travels abroad and, if you’ve been considering going on a trip, I would highly encourage it. The benefits last way beyond your time abroad, and you never know how it might change your life.

And if 2020 has put the kibbosh on your planned study abroad program, or you just can’t fit that semester in Spain or elsewhere into your degree program, or you just didn’t get a chance to study abroad—it’s not too late for you. EF Ultimate Break offers the perfect trips that feel like they cram a semester’s worth of memories and personal growth into a week or longer. Check it out and see how the world opens to you!

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Written by Katie Horan

Katie Horan is a grad school student living in Barcelona, Spain and documenting her international experiences on YouTube and Instagram. Her passion for travel began in 2018 during her semester abroad and she’s been traveling as much as possible since then, while sharing her best advice and tips for pursuing studies and work abroad.

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