There and Back Again

Even a short-term study abroad can have lasting benefits

May 13, 2013

Angela Baker’s summer in the Middle East helped her win a State Department job.

Angela Baker had a pretty great job in the Obama administration a few years back. Still, she was itching to break into the international policy field. So, while working full time at the Labor Department, Baker pursued a master’s degree in international conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University.

As part of the program, she spent a summer in Israel and the Palestinian territories studying the conflict there firsthand.

That summer, students met with government leaders, university professors and nonprofit workers in both regions. Though the trip lasted only two and a half months, the experience helped Baker land a job with the State Department and jump-start her international career.

“The goal was to work more in the international space,” says Baker, 31. And the time abroad helped her do that: Baker now works for an international corporate social responsibility program called Wireless Reach at Qualcomm.

Though less immersive than programs that last a semester or full year, short-term study-abroad programs allow busy students to balance other responsibilities such as full-time jobs or kids. Here are just some of the reasons to consider a short stint abroad during grad school:

Global Connections

A practical international experience in grad school can help students get a foot in the door at international agencies in the District, program coordinators say.

“In D.C., a lot of organizations that people want to work for are international organizations,” says Laura Ochs, associate director for George Washington University’s Office for Study Abroad. “It’s expected that people have some international experience.”

Interning with an organization abroad, even for a few weeks, lets students make connections that can lead to a job offer.

“I have a grad student who was working in an organization in the West Bank, and now she’s director of programming for that organization in D.C.,” says Yehuda Lukacs, associate provost for international programs and director of George Mason’s Center for Global Education.

Experiential Education

Baker, who interned at a nonprofit in East Jerusalem that was trying to create an environmentally sustainable school, says her on-the-ground experience in Israel and the West Bank was eye-opening.

“As Americans, we often study these international conflicts, but until you live there, you don’t get a deep understanding,” she says.

For Margaret Leist, 28, a master of library science student at the University of Maryland, study abroad wasn’t initially on her radar. But she jumped at the opportunity to go to India for two weeks for an information studies program, during which she visited Indian universities’ libraries as well as tech and software companies.

“We met with practitioners and actual people in the workforce,” she says. “It wasn’t theoretical; it was seeing these theories in action.”

Leist adds that the hands-on experience piques interest in her résumé.

“It’s a conversation starter” during job interviews, she says. “People see that you’re flexible and have been exposed to a variety of perspectives.”

Time Is Money

Margaux Manley, 33, a Ph.D. student in higher education administration at GW, studied abroad in high school and college but couldn’t find the time to study abroad for an entire semester in grad school because of degree requirements.

Instead, Manley spent a winter break in South Africa studying the country’s post-apartheid education system

“It allowed me to engage in the study-abroad experience without derailing me from graduating on time,” Manley says.

It’s rare that grad students have time to do a full semester of coursework abroad, says Deborah Lake, coordinator for marketing and freshman initiatives at the University of Maryland’s Education Abroad office.

“To do a semester program, they’d often have to take a leave of absence from school,” she says. Some students do choose to do so.

Baker, who took a sabbatical from work to go abroad, could spare only a couple of months. The higher costs of longer programs also influenced her decision.

“I would have loved to live abroad for a year, but it would’ve been expensive,” she says.

Expand Your Network

Study-abroad coordinators also tout the benefits of connecting more closely with a university faculty member during the intensive trips abroad.

“Students make amazing connections with their faculty members,” GW’s Ochs says. “Making that lasting connection with this person is a great opportunity.”

A Change of Pace

While most grad students choose programs closely related to their degree program, others use the short trips to try something new.

“Some students do programs that have nothing to do with their degree,” Lake says. For instance, a student in the school of public policy is attending a summer landscape architecture program.

For some students, the experience helps them realize a certain career isn’t a good fit.

“Short-term programs may help you discern some of the questions of ‘what do I want to do, where do my passions really lie?’ ” Lake says.

Quality Not Quantity

Some believe a “real” study abroad experience requires a longer programs. “But I’ve learned you can experience a meaningful cultural and academic experience with a short-term program,” GW grad student Manley says.

Those who have participated in the shorter programs say a brief time in another country can have a long-lasting impact on a student’s life.

“You don’t have to be abroad for three months,” Ochs says. “Personal change can still happen.”

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