Learning to thrive in the new millennium

Technological progress is moving at a breathtaking speed. It’s hard to think that 30 years ago, personal computers were not something you could find in any household, and now it’s becoming harder and harder to find a person in the developed or even the developing world who doesn’t have a smartphone. We have all of the world’s information at our fingertips and we’re globally connected in ways that were unimaginable still a few decades ago.

Experts say that we’re now in the middle of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. As time goes by, technological advancements in robotics and Artificial Intelligence will make more and more jobs disappear, while also creating many new ones that we yet cannot even imagine.

Even now, fewer people have traditional career paths of working with just one employer for decades, but instead switch jobs and even careers several times over the course of their lives. In the future, this might become more and more common. The key is to be able to adapt to these changes by learning the kinds of skills that will be useful across many different fields. Then you won’t be swept away by changes taking place but will be able to thrive in the emerging new economy.

The 4 core skills that are required today, more than ever

The American non-profit organization Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) has identified 4 skills that are most needed in 21st-century education, also called the 4 Cs: Critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. A recent report by the World Economic Forum Report, the Future of Jobs, also named complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity as the top 3 job skills in 2017. With a flood of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes. The report also names social skills and the ability to coordinate with others, both of which are included in the list of 21st-century skills as well.

study abroad 21st century skills

It’s also true that many more jobs will involve with either working in international teams or with customer and clients from all over the world. That’s why the Muse also names cross-cultural competency as one of the key skills for 2020 and beyond. We will have to learn to understand, appreciate and negotiate cultural differences in order to thrive in diverse environments. An interconnected and unpredictable world also requires tolerance for ambiguity, something that the best-selling author Jeff Selingo thinks college graduates are missing – the ability to be flexible and adaptable when faced with uncertainty and unfamiliar situations.

How studying abroad makes you smarter and more creative

When it comes to learning the above 21st skills, studying abroad might just be one of the best ways to do so. There is a growing body of research suggesting that studying or working abroad actually makes you smarter.

study conducted by William Maddux at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading graduate business schools, found that people with international experience or those who can identify with more than one nationality are more creative and have better problem-solving skills.

Angela Leung, an associate professor of psychology at Singapore Management University, is another researcher who has investigated the psychological effects of living abroad. In her paper, she reports that people with more experiences of different cultures are better able to generate creative ideas and make unexpected links among concepts.

The benefits are not automatic, however: they require that you actually make an effort to adapt to the host culture. It makes sense – the more you allow yourself to see from different viewpoints, the more mentally flexible and thereby creative you become.

It’s like learning a new language, which has been proven to improve memory, mental flexibility, and creativity. So, if you make an extra effort to both learn the language of the country you’re staying in as well as doing your best to adapt to the culture, you will be doing your creative thinking skills a big favor.

studying abroad can make you more creative

And if you’re wondering whether those students who already think creatively are the ones who end up studying abroad, that has been studied as well. David Therriault, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Florida, divided students into three groups: those who have studied abroad, those who haven’t and those who plan to do so. The ones who had actually studied abroad outperformed the other two groups.

Read more: Results of our gap year survey: How a gap year in Asia teaches new skills and brightens the future

Ok, but are there actually direct career benefits linked to studying abroad?

Yes, there are. William Maddux’s research also found that international experience can have a direct impact on career success: people with international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and to be promoted.

Indeed, most employers have a positive view of international experience. They know that adapting to the challenges of living abroad increases your resourcefulness and problem-solving skills. According to the biggest-ever survey on the subject, the QS Global Employer Survey Report, 6 out of 10 employers around the world give extra credit for an international student experience, and more than 80% said they actively sought graduates who had studied abroad.

But can studying abroad really help you land a job? According to a study done by NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers), an impressive 97 % of former American study abroad students find a job within 12 months of graduation, while for the general population in the US this number is only 49 %.

Having international experience often means a higher salary as well. Most of those surveyed believed that their time abroad helped them to get their first position due to the skills they had gained during the experience, like tolerance for diversity and ambiguity, adaptability and communication skills.

Similar results came from a study done in Europe, the Erasmus Impact Study. It revealed that students who have gone on an exchange have better chances of finding a job after graduation. The results also showed that around 65 percent of employers consider international experience important when hiring new staff. Over 90 percent of them are actively looking for transferable skills enhanced by study abroad, such as openness, curiosity, problem-solving, and decision-making.

It also matters where you go: Research published by The Frontiers Journal: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad suggests that employers look favorably on the more adventurous students. The more the culture of the destination country differs from your own, the more you will be able to learn, grow and demonstrate your capacity to adapt and be flexible.

Asia is an excellent study abroad destination for this very reason. Not only is it the continent of the future – it’s also home to some of the oldest and most fascinating cultures on Earth, with values, lifestyles, and philosophies that are very different from those in the West. The more familiar we are with different ways of thinking, the less likely we are to be stuck in a black-and-white view of the world and a result, the more wise, tolerant and creative we become. 

Read more: 10 reasons to study abroad in Asia

How to tell employers about your study abroad experience

While most employers see international experience positively, not all do. Research from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute found that some employers think of study abroad programs as “academic tourism.

Many students find it difficult to tell employers about the concrete value of their study abroad experiences. A study by the Finnish Center for International Mobility (CIMO) and Demos Helsinki also concluded that young people need to make the competencies gained through their study abroad experience more visible and concrete to employers. They can tell how studying abroad taught them specific skills, which often are the same skills that employers value as well.

For instance, the following skills can typically be gained from international experience:  Interacting with people who hold different interests, values, or perspectives; understanding cultural differences; adapting to situations of change, and gaining new knowledge from experiences. Self-confidence and self-knowledge are also some likely and important by-products of a study abroad experience.

Tips for making your study abroad semester count

Studying abroad can be an important investment in your future, especially if you approach it the right mindset. Here are some tips for taking the most out of the investment, before, during and after the study abroad period:

If you’re only just planning to study abroad

  • Think of your study abroad period as an investment. Spending a few months or even a year abroad can seem like a waste of time if you just want to graduate quickly. However, it can teach you skills and mindsets you couldn’t learn otherwise, which will serve you in your personal and professional life long into the future.
  • When choosing where to study abroad, go beyond your comfort zone: if you can, pick a destination where you’re forced to use the local language instead of English and where the culture is very different from your own. Destinations in Asia are a great choice in both respects.
  • Think about your goals for the study abroad period. Not only in terms of what you can study and how many credits you will gain but in terms of increasing your cultural awareness and independence as well as expanding your network of contacts.

When you’re studying abroad

  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do: try to learn the local language, learn about the culture as much as you can and try to get some local friends. Allow the experience to affect you and to change you. Embrace culture shock.
  • Writing a blog during your semester is a good way to both keep a record of your experiences and thoughts during the time abroad, reflect on what you are learning. A well-written, thoughtful and nice-looking study abroad blog is also something you can use to showcase your experience to your future employers in addition to your CV.

Hint: If you’re looking for a way to really kickstart an international career and immerse yourself in a foreign culture, completing a full degree abroad is a great way to do that!

When you have returned home after studying abroad

  • Reflect on your experiences, think what you have learned and what skills you have gained. Don’t just think about what you learned in the classroom, but the encounters you had with the locals, the insights you had into the local culture and the challenges you had to overcome. Did you work on group projects with people from different cultures? Did you initiate meetings with professionals at local organizations to gain insights into corporate and industry culture? Did you actively participate in a student organization?
  • When talking about your study abroad experience to prospective employers, highlight the concrete skills you gained. Did you get to develop your existing talents or learn completely new skills? Did you increase your self-knowledge and self-awareness? This last part is not often mentioned, but it’s one of the essential benefits of living abroad: learning about your strengths and weaknesses, discovering new sides of yourself and growing beyond what you thought was possible. See these tips from the University of Minnesota on how to market your study abroad experience in your CV and cover letter as well as during the interview.

Conclusion: Studying abroad matters, but how much – that is up to you

Just how much studying abroad will benefit you depends on many factors, starting from your choice of a study abroad destination. Making an effort to adapt to the host culture and learning its language will also help you to get a whole lot more out of the experience than simply hanging out with people from your own country. And if you’re looking to leverage your study abroad experience when applying for jobs, instead of mentioning all the travels or the time on the beach, talk about the concrete skills you gained. That way your valuable experience can stand out from your CV as more than just an extended holiday.

See how you can apply to study in Asia in a few simple steps:

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