The Lifelong Lessons of Study Abroad Programs

By Rebekkah McKalsen

According to the Institute for International Education, 283,332 American students studied abroad in the 2011-2012 academic year. When asked about the situation that had the biggest impact on her life while studying abroad, Wells College student Sunedara Davis said of her time in Japan, “I almost couldn’t continue to live with my host family because my host dad had cancer and they thought I should leave. I could understand where they were coming from with their concerns, but I didn’t have the grammar or vocabulary to respond [in Japanese]. I had to go through the school for translations and I told them I would leave if I was a bother, but that I saw us as a family and preferred to stay. Even though it was hard to watch my host dad slowly getting sicker, I ended up staying.” Davis noted that the experience made her more independent and able to speak out about what matters most. 

My time abroad in Paris last spring was most rewarding when I stepped outside of the classroom and my comfort zones. I went to Normandy shortly after arriving as part of a group trip sponsored by my program. Walking through battered footpaths, dodging craters from bombs that went off more than seventy years ago, I realized how little I understood the circumstances surrounding warfare. There was an old house within several kilometers of the beaches with a huge crack across the front; these battles happened on people’s door steps, in backyards. 

I’m not sure whether the brutal reality behind the trip would have fully hit me, however, if I hadn’t searched the digital database of soldiers who participated in the D-Day invasion and found my great-uncle’s name: Henry Puhalski. He’d survived D-Day, but seeing his name there along with the name of his regiment (501st Parachute Infantry) brought the emotionally-packed trip home. The database provided information about where Puhalski was buried, so I noted the plot number and scheduled a journey to the American Cemetery of Netherlands, one of the largest cemeteries for American soldiers outside of Arlington. 

Normandy taught me to appreciate the relative safety America has enjoyed through many of the world’s most devastating wars. In Holland, I discovered how memorializing the dead can become daily cultural practice. When someone working at the cemetery saw me wandering around, he took me inside and brought out an enormous logbook in which every soldier’s name is printed alongside a blank space for family visitors. “You’re the first one to visit from your family,” he said, pointing to where I could sign. Then, he went to the graveside with me with a small American flag and sand from the beaches of Normandy to rub onto my uncle’s stone. “Since the stones are white and the letters are engraved, sand helps the letters show up in photographs,” he said. Despite having never known him, being able to rub Normandy’s sand over my uncle’s name and rank was one of the crowning moments of my time abroad. 

After I finished, my guide put the flag into the ground next to the stone and photographed it. We went back to the small building where he’d gotten the logbook. He printed the photo, handing it to me along with a binder full of information about the cemetery, townspeople who had adopted the soldiers’ graves in order to tell their story, and the memorial celebrations held there twice yearly. The experience was entirely different from the customs surrounding death I grew up with. Without the chance to study abroad and immerse myself in that culture, I never would have been fully conscious of the array of alternatives to dealing with death that there are in the world. My trips thus broadened my perspective while also helping me understand my own culture. 

Studying abroad also has more practical applications as well. According to Saginaw Valley State University, job applicants with study abroad experiences stand out because today’s “global marketplace demands increased adaptability, cross-cultural sensitivity, [and] political awareness.” Saginaw Valley sees career development and study abroad experiences as being closely related, and the university is part of a growing trend. In  “Study Abroad’s New Focus Is Job Skills” from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer notes that many institutions are pushing career services and study abroad offices to work together. The company Cultural Experiences Abroad has even “fashioned a semester-long career-development course” to be offered while students are abroad so that students can discover and handle cultural differences on a business level. 

However, studying abroad can be useful even if students don’t take career classes or get specific counseling about making the most of the experience. Wells College student Victoria H. Williams said, “I learned how to step outside of comfort zones. In order to study abroad, you have to become independent.” Williams also talked about how her two semesters abroad (in Belize and Japan) contributed to a better perspective. “I’m a Psychology major. Now, I think about the behaviors and background of a person… I’m more open and unbiased than before”–these are invaluable skills for psychologists to cultivate and stress in professional settings. 

The assistant provost for global education at the University of Tulsa, Cheryl Matherly, said in an interview with Fischer that the biggest obstacle students with study abroad experience face in the job search is not knowing how to talk about it: “Students have to learn how to talk about that experience in terms of transferable skills, how it relates to what an employer wants.” Study abroad encourages students to become more independent problem-solvers who are more culturally conscious: thinking critically about the experiences that challenge students the most while abroad will isolate significant developmental moments that could not have happened anywhere else, thus making study abroad invaluable in the competitive job market and global environment we find ourselves in today. 

Rebekkah McKalsen is a senior at Wells College majoring in English. Wells College is home to the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.