A Foreign Concept

Graduate students who study abroad gain worlds of marketable skills


G.W.U. master’s student Kate Pazoles spent a semester in Beirut. Her snapshot shows her climbing over ruins at Baalbeck.

Kate Pazoles regretted never studying abroad while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University. So when it came time for graduate school, a program with an option to spend time in another country was a must: “I’ve traveled a bit internationally, but I never really had the experience of immersing myself in another culture.

“My friends who studied abroad had really great stories and memories, and I felt like I had missed out on an awesome experience that would contribute to my evolution as a person,” says Pazoles, 28.

So while getting her master’s in Middle East studies at George Washington University, Pazoles spent a semester in Beirut, followed by a summer in Damascus, Syria.

“It was good to learn more about the cultures I was studying just by being around people, getting their views of current events and politics, and talking to them about their beliefs and what they wanted for their country. You can’t get that from a book,” she says.

The experience also helped Pazoles grow personally. “I got to be really good at just going with the flow; you never really know what you’re going to come across when trying to find a house in Damascus,” she says.

Studying abroad can be a transformative experience for any student, but it can have more of an impact on grad students, who are more focused academically, than on undergraduates, who might pick a program in London or Paris simply because they’ve always wanted to visit that city.

“Graduate students are more self-aware and self-directed,” says Tanith Fowler Corsi, assistant vice president for global education at the Catholic University of America. “If they’re making time in their academic career to go overseas, they’re much more appreciative of the experience and really focus on getting the most of out it.”

Graduate-level students in particular can develop specific skills that wind up benefiting their careers.

“If someone has that extra advantage of studying overseas, their résumé will definitely be on the top of the pile,” says Corsi. She says that’s even truer in competitive job markets like D.C.

“Employers like to see people who are flexible, who are nimble in dealing with unexpected situations,” says Sara Dumont, director of AU Abroad, American University’s study-abroad office. “They want to see people who are able to get along with others who are different from themselves, who can work in groups and analyze situations and deal with them. Students get all of these things when they study abroad.”

Pazoles now works at a political consulting firm in D.C., where she draws upon her international experience every day. “It has definitely given me a leg up,” she says.

It’s also made it easier for her to learn about other cultures quickly when she’s traveling for work. “When we go to work in a new country, I’m really excited to learn about not just the facts and demographics but what the customs are, what’s considered rude and polite in that country. It’s important to be sensitive to things like that, and my time abroad made me more sensitive.”

Bennet Voorhees majored in economics and Chinese while an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. He wanted to strengthen his understanding of both subject areas, so he went to China through Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced Studies (SAIS). He earned a master’s in international studies from SAIS’s Center for Chinese and American Studies, which is jointly run by Johns Hopkins and Nanjing University.

Classes were taught in Mandarin, and Voorhees even had to write his thesis in the language. “I had to deal with a whole other way of getting work done,” says Voorhees, 25. “When you have to think about something analytically in another language, you just develop another kind of thought process,” he says.

Voorhees uses the skills he gained studying in China in his job at an international finance and development agency in D.C. Studying abroad “taught me what resourceful means, which really helps me with my job now, where I’m dealing with a lot of different data sets and people from different cultures all of the time,” he says.

For students who want to work in a field with any kind of international reach, actually spending time in another country offers a chance to speak with authority about other cultures. “If you’ve never left this country and you’re pretending to be an expert on things that are international, your argument doesn’t bear quite as much weight as if you can point to some experience living abroad,” says Bonnie Wilson, associate dean at SAIS.

“I wanted to focus on international security and development, so it seemed like a no-brainer,” says Megan Nathan, 26, who earned her master’s degree in government with a specialization in counterterrorism and homeland security from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel (Portal.idc.ac.il), and now works for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “Israel has unfortunately had to become the best at counterterrorism, so I was learning from people who really had frontline experience. I’m able to look at national security from different angles, because I was exposed to so many different perspectives.”

Students don’t have to spend an entire semester abroad to benefit from the experience. George Mason University, for example, offers a number of study-abroad programs that last as few as two weeks in areas including anthropology, social work, communications and geography.

“Our typical graduate students tend to be full-time working professionals who are also pursuing a graduate degree, so it’s hard for them to get away for longer than a week or two at a time,” says Kevin Stoy, marketing coordinator for George Mason’s Center for Global Education.

“These programs allow people to see other perspectives and be able to view their own discipline with more of a global focus,” Stoy says.

And that’s vital in today’s economy. “Whatever kind of business you’re in, it has a global element to it now,” says Dumont. “Even if you’re working for an organization or business that doesn’t work overseas, you’re going to be dealing with a diverse population here in the United States, people who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds. The experience you have overseas gives you a sensitivity to multiculturalism that others might not have.”

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The Manolo · June 8, 2012