Maximizing the Career Development of Students Who Study Abroad

By Vera V. Chapman

The number of American students participating in study abroad programs has more than tripled over the past two decades. In the 2009-2010 academic year alone, approximately 270,600 students immersed themselves in foreign culture while studying at host institutions outside of the United States (Institute of International Education, 2011). This noteworthy increase in study abroad participation might in part be due to institutions like Goucher College and Arcadia University, who have pioneered programs requiring students to obtain some academic credit abroad in order to be eligible for graduation (Fischer, 2008, June 20). Statistics related to study abroad participation will continue to increase, especially in light of the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program’s goal of sending one million American students to study abroad annually by the 2016-2017 academic year (BaileyShea, 2009).


Why such a big push for study abroad, you might ask? Well, quite frankly, because it can often end up changing just about everything for those who participate (Chapman, 2011). First, study abroad participation often leads to interest in new vocational options as well as the unanticipated desire to pursue graduate study or careers abroad. However, as only a few participants typically study abroad with career goals in mind, students often find themselves unprepared for the many career development opportunities available to them abroad and often only recognize missed opportunities retrospectively. Second, study abroad participation often supports significant multidimensional growth, including (among other outcomes):

  • gains in identity development and competence
  • a greater sense of autonomy
  • honed problem-solving ability
  • strengthened interpersonal communication skills, and
  • an increased capacity for mature interpersonal relationships that transcend cultural boundaries.

These are all qualities that could be highly marketable to future employers, and the wealth of meaningful experiences could prove valuable during interviews. Sadly, students often struggle to put words to their experiences and fail to “give meaning to their experiences in a way that employers could identify” (Collegiate Employment Research Institute, CERI, 2008, p.4).

A need therefore exists for career services professionals to assist study abroad participants as they prepare for the foreign study experience, while they explore themselves and careers abroad, and upon their return home. Strategies to best meet the unique career development needs of these students follow.


Pre-Departure Assistance and Career Center Programming

  • Partner with the Study Abroad Office to offer pre-departure workshops during orientation aimed at making students aware of the career opportunities available to them while abroad.
  • Offer workshops about international business culture. Small group formats will enable the presentation to be specific to the host culture of those in attendance.
  • Help students to craft resumes or CVs and design business cards.
  • Assist students with the development of a Study Abroad Career Plan – learning outcomes specific to their career goals. This could include a checklist of activities, including: attending a professional networking event, shadowing a professional in their field of study, pursuing a part-time unpaid internship or engaging in service learning related to their interest area, visiting potential graduate schools, and making connections with potential research advisors.

Career Assistance While Abroad

  • As students could face career crises while in unknown surroundings, make continued career counseling available through e-mail, phone, or video-conferencing.
  • Where possible, help hold students accountable to their study abroad career plans while they are abroad.

Career Services Upon Return from the Study Abroad Experience

  • Offer debriefing programs to help students better articulate the value of their experiences specifically related to personal and career development. CERI has developed a flagship program for this purpose called “Unpacking Your Study Abroad Experience,” which relays the potential relevance of newly acquired skills and competencies to future employers and offers an opportunity to reflect on past experiences (Gardner, Steglitz, & Gross, 2009).
  • Help students to formulate resumes and cover letters that will showcase their study abroad participation and effectively highlight newly developed skills and competencies.
  • Offer students the opportunity to practice articulating the meaningfulness of their study abroad experience through mock interviewing.


Study abroad participants benefit greatly from targeted career development programming because most are not focused on career outcomes as they prepare for the adventure ahead. Fortunately, career services professionals are in the unique position to purposefully insert themselves into the pre-departure planning, abroad experiences, and readjustment of participants to help ensure that meaningful career development takes place.



BaileyShea, C. (2009). Factors that affect American college students’ participation in study abroad. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation.) University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.


Chapman, V. V. (2011). “Beyond the bubble:” Study abroad and the psychosocial and career development of undergraduates (Doctoral dissertation). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database (AAT 3461273).


Collegiate Employment Research Institute (2008). Unpacking your study abroad experience: Critical reflection for workplace competencies. Research Brief 1(1). Retrieved April 9, 2011 from http://ceri.msu.edu/publications/pdf/brief1-2008final.pdf.


Fischer, K. (2008, June 20). All abroad! Overseas study required. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(41), A1.


Gardner, P., Steglitz, I., & Gross, L. (2009). Translating study abroad experiences for workplace competencies. AAC&U Peer Review, 11(4), 19-22.


Institute for International Education (2011). Open Doors 2011 Fast Facts. Retrieved April 29, 2012 from http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors.



Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.



Vera ChapmanVera V. Chapman, Ph.D, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor currently practicing as a Career Planning Specialist at The University of Mississippi while also teaching in an Adjunct capacity. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, a study abroad experience to Clemson University in turn led her to The University of Mississippi, where she pursued graduate degrees in Counseling and Higher Education. She finds great purpose in empowering others toward becoming the most extraordinary version of themselves – something she likes to call, “chasing your fire.” Vera actively shares career success strategies through Twitter (@VeraVChapman) and blogging (ChasingYourFire.com). She may be contacted at vera@career.olemiss.edu.


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Sunitha Narayanan   on Friday 06/08/2012 at 09:42 PM

Vera--Given that we live in an increasingly volatile and complex world, study abroad opportunities certainly allow students to look beyond differences to focus on what is similar - human needs and aspirations aren't very different across the world, are they?

Dr. Doris Allen started an organization with programs for young children way back in 1950 through the Childrens International Summer Village program --the idea was to foster global friendships.

Timely discussion, given what is happening in our world today. Thanks for shining light on these programs. Best, Sunitha

Vera V. Chapman   on Thursday 06/14/2012 at 11:24 AM

Sunitha, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you completely that it is important for us all to be able to look beyond differences to find commonality with those around us. One of the biggest "aha" moments abroad come when students learn that universality exists despite the biggest cultural differences. One student commented that there are “things that transcend international boundaries: music, sports, academic learning, and a desire for pure human interaction.” Powerful, isn't it? Best, Vera

Martin Tillman   on Saturday 09/01/2012 at 03:19 PM

This is a welcome essay to share with this network. Many international educators who are members of NAFSA: Assn of International Educators and The Forum on Study Abroad, as two examples, have been addressing the issues Vera raises for many years. I've published widely on the same theme: see my AIFS Student Guide to Study Abroad & Career Development (2011) and "The Right Tool for the Job, " NAFSA International Educator (2005), among other titles. My colleagues, Cheryl Matherly and William Nolting [search google for their work) have also collaborated with me on many issues relating to this same topic.

Martin Tillman, President
Global Career Compass
Associate Director [ret.], Career Services
Johns Hopkins School of advanced Intl. Studies

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.