In a world where a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for most entry-level professional positions, many college students are looking for other ways to distinguish themselves in the workforce. The most exciting—and some might argue, most rewarding—tactic is studying abroad.
International study has long been considered a culturally enriching experience. Today, while those traditional values remain true, the corporate world has begun to place new emphasis on the personal and social skills that international experience cultivates.
Global Education Oregon (GEO), the University of Oregon’s study-abroad hub on campus, hosts programs for the UO and other universities, sending students to 90 countries worldwide. GEO’s leadership team is acutely aware of the growing demand for job applicants with international experience and is making a dedicated effort to advance study abroad as a critical component of higher education.
Bre Cruickshank, BA ’14, is an ethical fashion blogger and category information analyst at Nike, providing data support for the men’s sportswear category. During her junior year at the UO, she studied abroad in Angers, France, for five-and-a-half months.
“I had the biggest love affair of my life with France,” she says. By the time she left she had tasted a snail, become conversationally fluent in a new language, and formed the opinion that she was not going back to the United States for as long as possible. She landed a job in London at a startup called Urban Times, an online magazine featuring user-generated content. Her title was eco-fashion editor.
It was around this time that news broke of the collapse of an eight-story garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers. A global human rights advocate with a great love of fashion, Cruickshank quickly realized that the marriage of her interests could help facilitate a safer and more equitable industry.
After three months in London and a few too many nights eating canned corn for dinner, Cruickshank returned to the US. She credits her time abroad with opening up the world in more ways than one; in addition to gaining a broader cultural perspective, it launched her into the world of ethical fashion and likely played a role in the job offer from Nike.
“There is so much we are capable of, if we were only able to recognize it and do more risky things. I don’t think I would have realized that if I hadn’t studied abroad,” she admits. “It was the push that I needed.”
Journalist and UO professor Peter Laufer has dedicated much of his academic career to providing student journalists with opportunities to immerse themselves in foreign cultures. He has led UO programs to Austria, Spain, Cuba, and, soon, Argentina. He asserts that there is no question of whether international study creates career opportunities, particularly in the field of journalism.
“After we have an experience where we’re working across languages and across cultures, we’re in a much better place to be able to communicate when we’re back home,” he explains. “You give me any job in this state and tell me that it isn’t going to serve that practitioner to be comfortable crossing culture and language.”
Laufer describes the effects of living in another country as an “explosion of personal growth” that, once ignited, never ends. In one memorable instance, two journalism students spontaneously followed anti-Putin protests through the city of Vienna, and ended up witnessing and reporting on the Russian president’s speech at Vienna’s Soviet War Memorial. “Their classroom was the streets, and that’s not replicable,” Laufer says.
As the global business world expands, there is also a greater demand for individuals with cultural sensitivity and tact. “Too many Americans think we are number one,” Laufer says. “Going overseas allows us to see that we do have our flaws. A little humbling is good.”
GEO executive director Kathy Poole has noted a shift in the way students select programs; they are often seeking shorter summer trips, led by UO faculty members, that offer credits counting toward their major. The promise of a transformational experience alone is not as compelling as it once was, and many students are seriously calculating their return on investment.
Around 25 percent of UO undergraduates study abroad, which is a significantly higher percentage than found in most public universities. However, as GEO’s institutional relations manager Lisa Calevi points out, “There are real—not perceived—barriers to going abroad.” These obstacles manifest in terms of cost, curriculum, and culture. GEO continues to make strides toward building unique programs, attracting diverse student groups, and providing financial resources.
However, some things haven’t changed, including the department’s overall mission. “We want to create better citizens,” Poole says, explaining that in addition to gaining skills such as resilience, language fluency, and adaptability, those who can step outside of their own culture and look back often gain invaluable perspective.
Cruickshank powerfully articulates this phenomenon. “The best thing that people can do for themselves is to be uncomfortable. It’s when you are in those challenging, difficult, and uncomfortable situations that you change as a person and become better. I think comfort is death.”
—By Chloe Huckins
A veteran of professor Peter Laufer’s Vienna program, Chloe Huckins is a senior majoring in journalism and anthropology.