A Career in Study Abroad
Most Important Thing is to Gain Experience
Looking for a job that involves travel, learning, and the opportunity to make a positive contribution? Well, who isn’t? But it could be easier to find than you think.
The area of study abroad was not one that I ever considered until two years ago. Indeed, being a lawyer from Ireland it was neither a term nor a concept I was familiar with. Yet within a matter of months, I found myself working as Director of International Programs in a well-established school in Ecuador.
My route to that job was not exactly typical. But then again the Centers for Interamerican Studies (known locally as CEDEI, as in “Se-day-ee”) is not a typical educational institution.
Located 8,400 feet high in the Andes in the stunning colonial city of Cuenca, the not-for-profit foundation began taking students more than 13 years ago and has grown to encompass the area’s largest English-language school, an arts school, and a technical college.
It was as a member of the staff of native English speaking teachers that I came to CEDEI, having left my job in a small legal practice in Dublin in search of adventure and the opportunity to experience other cultures first hand.
TEFL teaching put me on the path I was seeking, but it wasn’t until I worked in study abroad that I became, at least to a small degree, part of a different culture. It all happened very quickly once I learned of a vacancy in the Office of International Programs. I handed in my resume and an interview later I found myself part of the team.
It was intimidating at first. Here was an office that routinely dealt with about 300 students a year, oversaw more than 70 local homestay families, organized large-scale service projects and individual volunteer placements, and took groups on field trips all over Ecuador and Peru—all the while ensuring the students learned, stayed safe, and left with smiles on their faces. As a lawyer I had been used to multi-tasking, but this was something else.
It was a whirlwind indoctrination. At times frustrating, mostly it was exhilarating. When not accompanying the students to orientation meetings, museum visits or trips to the Amazon rainforest, I filled my time furiously studying Spanish. Never a dull momentito.
As I became more comfortable with my place in the scheme of things, I began to realize that my intense learning curve was by no means extraordinary.
Around me students from all over the States and Canada were going through something similar as part of their programs. Yes, they were having fun and traveling a lot in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But more importantly we were all learning incredible lessons about the people of that country and their challenging way of doing things. It wasn’t the way we’d do it in Dublin, Ireland no more than in Dublin, Iowa, but it suited the Ecuadorians just fine, gracias. We had to adapt.
That alteration in the way you think is the heart of study abroad. It is what makes this area more than just fun or cool. It’s what makes it important.
With globalization and communications advances making the world smaller every day, the need to understand and respect other cultures instead of bulldozing over them has never been more urgent.
So how do you find employment in study abroad? A lot depends on the type of job you are looking for. The field encompasses all sorts—from students volunteering or doing internships, to experienced and highly qualified professionals.
Before getting into specifics, here are a number of general guidelines that will help you take a step into this challenging and rewarding world:
Get International Experience. One of the great things is that all those carefree travels—viewed skeptically by many employers—actually become an advantage. Put it all in your resume: that summer spent backpacking in Italy, those two weeks learning Spanish in Guatemala, etc. It’s all about showing a commitment to international living and learning about other parts of the world.
Of course the best kind of experience is having taken part in a study abroad program yourself, as you will already have an idea what these programs should achieve (either through a positive or negative experience). While my semester in Holland taught me a lot, I now view it as an opportunity lost due to haphazard organization.
If you can’t study abroad or are no longer a student, never fear: the websites listed in the sidebar contain a wealth of opportunities for you to whet your appetite through working or volunteering.
Leave the Baggage Behind. The last thing any study abroad professional is interested in is your cultural baggage. So your backpack got stolen in Madrid. Deal with it. Worse things happen in your neighborhood every day. All Spaniards are not to blame. The point is to try (and it is an effort) to leave at the door all those in-built triggers and stereotypes, and see the world through fresh eyes. It is this core of idealism at the heart of a big business that makes study abroad so attractive.
Learn a Language. A bit hypocritical given my very shaky grasp on Spanish when I got to Ecuador, but do as I say. Having two or more languages will give you a big boost when applying for any job in this area. Stands to reason: one of the biggest barriers to cross-cultural understanding is language. Being able to communicate with people in their own language immediately elevates you in their eyes and increases your chances of acceptance.
Remember it’s never too late. Having made it into my thirties with little more than a few phrases in Irish, I now only rarely ask for jabon (soap) in my sandwiches instead of jamon (ham). So get at it. Check out offerings at your local community college or language school, chat with a native speaker, and, of course, go study abroad.
Take it Seriously. It may seem like the ultimate fun job, but any study abroad position comes with more than average responsibility. With a group of hormonal students let loose in a foreign environment the possibilities for physical, mental, or cultural harm, are infinite. Never forget that; whoever interviews you certainly won’t.
Now to specifics
Most people enter the world of study abroad through their own experience as a student. Not only is that the hook that grabs most future professionals in the area, it is also a way to make contacts and gain experience.
If you are a student, talk to the study abroad office at your school about the possibility of interning or volunteering on an existing program. Or go ahead and find your own internship. The possibilities are plentiful once you start to look.
If you are already working but looking for a change of career, be not afraid. Chances are you have already traveled somewhat, and study abroad covers such a spectrum—from legal issues to marketing to history, language, politics, economics...the list goes on—that it’s very likely your work experience up to now will have some relevance.
So polish up your resume (bearing in mind the above guidelines) and get it out there. Buena suerte!