As parents, we seem to know inherently that studying abroad is an incredibly valuable experience. We chose international schools for our children, knowing the many advantages they will gain from pursuing a globally-recognized school curriculum, earning advanced placement in universities through International Baccalaureate or A.P. Exams, or even just from studying in a more diverse classroom. We invest because we know that it gives them an advantage when they are ready for higher education.
We hope that they will continue to choose the options that give them the most competitive advantages as they become adults and enter the working world. Enrolling at a university abroad—or at least pursuing a semester of study abroad—also imply further investments in their future success. Yet, how can we measure the benefits of a study abroad experience? How can we trust that it’s worth the investment?
Fortunately, teams of international educators and researchers have examined the impact of study abroad. As we can imagine, the European Union invests heavily in its Erasmus program, so as far back as 2014, the EU Commission has studied the impact of study exchange on skills development and employability. In 2017, the Institute for International Education (IIE) analysed how studying abroad gave university students a career edge, analysing 15 soft and hard skills drawn from competencies identified as most desired by 21st-century employers. Others like the Institute for the International Education of Students (IES Abroad) also report direct benefits of study abroad on early and long-term career prospects.
As an international educator, I was pleased to learn that a plethora of research is available to back our assumptions as parents: studying abroad brings a direct, measurable impact on personal and career growth. For example, in one study that assessed personal characteristics deemed important to 92% of employers, the EU Commission reported significant advances in personal development, including psychometric indicators like Tolerance, Curiosity, Confidence, Decisiveness (decision-making) and Vigor (ability to solve problems). Moreover, the change in these personal traits after a long-term study abroad (of one semester or more) was equivalent to a change of about four years of development for this age group. So in comparison to those who pursue university studies only in their home culture, those who launch abroad simply mature more quickly.
When thinking about the technical aspects of Career Readiness of university graduates who study abroad, how does this all add up? Career Readiness is considered a combination of knowledge and competencies and developed as a concept by various organisations like the National Association for Colleges and Employers (a group that links university career counsellors with employers and recruiters). It turns out that many cognitive competencies and personal traits that are developed through study abroad are directly aligned with those deemed as most needed for career readiness in our globalised world of work. In the aforementioned IIE study on the impact of study abroad on 21st Century Skills, most respondents reported that their study abroad experience helped develop or improve intercultural skills, curiosity, flexibility & adaptability, confidence, and self-awareness to a significant degree. Studying abroad also develops interpersonal skills, communication, problem solving and language skills, and tolerance for ambiguity – and these competencies further support Career Readiness.
It is interesting to note that Creativity was recently reported by both LinkedIn and Forbes (2020-21) as the most sought-after trait among top employers (in the context of financial downturns, global pandemic and in this era of technological disruption, it is not surprising). It is well-known that creativity is more highly developed in contexts and environments beyond what is familiar and the comforts of routine. Being surrounded by the unfamiliar and unexpected sparks creative thinking and problem-solving—and a study abroad experience is an immersion in the unknown.
Perhaps the most essential skills for those young people entering the unknown job market will not only be the capacity to problem-solve creatively but to demonstrate their experiences and personal confidence for responding to unanticipated problems in creative ways. Living in foreign cultures allows for this experience and builds confidence. This confidence will enable students to make decisions based on their convictions and trust in their competencies—and this is a metric that is consistently reported to be enhanced through long-term study abroad experience. This also helps to put students in the driver’s seat on the road to their future careers.
In one study from the IES Abroad, which looked at the impact of study abroad experiences on its alumni over time, 96% reported that studying abroad served as an overall catalyst for increased maturity and self-confidence. And they not only reported increase employability but also that they secured jobs more quickly than their peers–and earned an average of about $6,000 more per year for their first salary out of university than the national average—all of which speak to a return on that investment.
Study Abroad at Webster University
We see these dynamics playing out at Webster University Geneva, where only a third of our entering class of bachelor students come from high schools based in Switzerland—and where a large majority of our students (83% in our most recent incoming class) are non-Swiss citizens. In our most recent intake, there were 38 distinct nationalities represented, and across the campus, it’s not unusual to have 90 nationalities enrolled in any given semester in Switzerland. On average, our Geneva campus also hosts about 100 study abroad students each year, both from other Webster campuses and from other universities in the U.S.A.
The value of living in the international milieu of Geneva and studying highly diverse classrooms brings direct benefits to students by developing the personal traits, knowledge and competencies that directly impact Career Readiness. Our Career Services office works on a Career Plan with each student, helping them track progress in these critical knowledge areas and skills they can develop in course work or through co-curricular experiences like internships—or even internships abroad. In addition to personal coaching and mentoring, students have opportunities to attend career-related workshops, alumni panels and other events that expose them toward higher aspirations, whether for obtaining an internship, their first professional job or admission into competitive master programs for further (postgraduate) studies.
In our most recent graduating class (2021), Career Services reported that 82% of bachelor students gained some form of work experience during their studies through internships, work-study positions on campus, or jobs off-campus (or during summer). In the 2021 cohort, 55% of bachelor students pursued internships during their degree program (56% in Switzerland and 44% in another location). Our most recent research on young alumni in 2020 also found that 91% of bachelor alumni were engaged within six months of graduation in either an internship, full-time employment or further graduate studies. We continue to refine our programs and activities to support developing individual career readiness.
Study Abroad during Covid-19
A final note is that the exchange of students for temporary study abroad at many universities was suspended during the pandemic’s peak. Yet, student mobility for degree-seeking candidates abroad continues to be in demand, and many consular offices re-opened for processing of student visas in Spring 2021. Administrators at many universities, of course, are anticipating some ‘pent-up demand’ for study abroad soon. But, in the near term, some unknowns remain—yet student mobility is expected to grow worldwide in the long term. For example, Webster University has re-opened its study abroad programs and continues to promote the option within its global network.
Webster University (worldwide), based in St. Louis, USA, has an international network of campuses across Europe, Asia, and Africa. It provides unique options for student mobility: semesters or summers abroad within its international campus network are available to students who declare an interest. The University has been recognised in US News and World Report among only 56 out of 1,500+ institutions of higher education placed on this list, placing the University in the top 3% of universities for Study Abroad (this was also the 12th time Webster has been recognised by U.S. News & World Report for its study abroad programs since 2003). As a U.S. Accredited, non-profit University based in St. Louis, its mission is to ensure high-quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence. Learn more at webster.ch/success
William McDonald, Director of Admissions and Enrolment | Webster University Geneva
Will McDonald is a seasoned international higher education professional with 20+ years of experience in launching and managing international degree programs. He has worked across bachelor, master and executive-level programming. He has led degree programs and partnerships in Switzerland, the U.S., France, India and Japan, and has led study trips to BRIC nations and the Middle East. Will is passionate about encouraging students at all learning levels to pursue immersion experiences through study abroad.