Nation and World

Opening eyes and opening doors

by James Heffernan

Photo of Brooke Boyer in Kenya

Why study abroad leads to enhanced employment prospects and higher starting salaries

By James Heffernan ('96)

Photo of Salamanca at nightA JMU study abroad group in Salamanca.

The vast majority of students who have participated in JMU's award-winning study abroad programs will tell you that their experiences enriched their lives and broadened their worldviews. But did you know that going abroad can also give you a leg up in your career?

'In today's highly global marketplace [graduates] must be familiar with the greater world. Study abroad is one of the most effective ways to gain that international experience.' —Lee Sternberger, executive director of JMU international programs

According to a recent study by the University of California, Merced, there are a number of practical benefits to international study, including improved GPAs, better employment prospects and higher starting salaries. Among the findings:

  • College graduates who studied abroad earn 25 percent higher starting salaries than those graduates who did not study abroad.
  • 97 percent of study abroad students found employment within 12 months of graduation, when only 49 percent of college graduates found employment in the same period. That means study abroad graduates were twice as likely to find a job.
  • 84 percent of study abroad alumni felt their studies abroad helped them build valuable skills for the job market. A second study confirms this at 85 percent.
  • GPAs for all students tend to rise as they approach the completion of their undergraduate degree. However, according to a Georgia study, students who studied abroad demonstrated greater improvements in their GPAs for coursework abroad and back at their home institutions. Students attribute skills and knowledge learned abroad with their improved performance in courses that followed their study abroad experiences.
  • 59 percent of employers said study abroad will be valuable in an individual's career throughout their time with their organization.
  • 90 percent of study abroad alumni who applied to graduate or professional school were admitted into their first or second choice program.

Students in SalamancaA JMU study abroad group in Salamanca.

International and intercultural competence

Another study published in Harvard Business Review (2010) found that people with international experience tend to be better problem solvers and are more flexible, creative and complex thinkers, resulting in more success professionally. And the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce notes that studying abroad helps build key competencies, such as leadership, adaptability, time management, open-mindedness and the ability to deal with ambiguity.

"Students cannot afford to miss out on experiences that foster international and intercultural competence," says Dr. Lee Sternberger, associate provost for academic affairs at JMU and executive director of the Office of International Programs. "In today's highly global marketplace—and regardless of where they are employed—they simply must be familiar with the greater world. Study abroad is one of the most effective ways to gain that international experience and build the necessary skills to function in our highly connected world."

Study abroad in KenyaA JMU Kenya Field School experience.

Alumni of JMU's study abroad programs say their experiences helped shape their careers.

'I have no doubt that my study abroad experiences greatly contributed to my being hired.' —Brooke Boyer ('07)

During the summer of her sophomore year, Brooke Boyer ('07), an anthropology major, studied abroad with JMU's Kenya Field School. "Those short, wondrous six weeks have truly impacted every aspect of my life since," she says.

Living and studying in Kenya opened Boyer's eyes and humbled her to the human condition. It also honed her critical-thinking skills. "Not only were we expected to absorb everything around us," she recalls, "but we were also encouraged to explore and dissect the reasons why things were happening in Kenya the way they were." Boyer returned to East Africa the following summer and again with Kenya Field School Director Dr. Jennifer Coffman, who led the 2006 Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad to teach and develop curricula alongside Virginia schoolteachers.

After graduating from Madison, Boyer was hired as a research assistant with FHI 360, a leading international public health and development nonprofit organization. Over the next four years, Boyer assisted scientists with assessments of reproductive health and conducted trainings with African midwives to prevent maternal and newborn death and disability. "It was incredibly rare to be hired with only an undergraduate education," she says. "Nearly everyone on my level had a master's degree in public health. I have no doubt that my study abroad experiences greatly contributed to my being hired."

Boyer has since earned a master's degree in international health working in the European Union. "As my career in international health has developed, I have realized my passion for maternal health, and in particular, birth," she says. Boyer recently began an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the intent of becoming a certified nurse midwife.

Brooke Boyer during Study Abroad in KenyaBrooke Boyer ('07) in Kenya.

For Veronica Marchant ('13), a native of Chile, JMU was itself a study abroad destination. But her travels didn't stop there. Marchant also participated in Madison's Semester in Salamanca program in the spring of 2012.

"I've lived in various countries and have been fortunate enough to travel throughout the world," Marchant says. "Each and every time that I interviewed for a job or met someone—whether it's a friend, co-worker or potential employer—everyone is interested in my education and life story. Many times they are awed at the experiences and see it as something unique. This is great, especially when you're looking for a job, because employers remember you and you stand out. The majority of the time they even admire it."

An international affairs major at JMU with minors in Latin American and Caribbean studies and humanitarian affairs, Marchant currently works at the Embassy of Chile in Washington, D.C.

"Employers want well-rounded, culturally-oriented people—people with diversity who aren't closed-minded or afraid to work with others who differ from them," she says. "At national and international levels, companies rely on teamwork, so it's essential for them to hire individuals who can work together as a team and understand each other."

Study abroad EUPS groupA European Union Policy Studies group photo.

After completing JMU's European Union Policy Studies master's program, "double Duke" Aimee Bateas ('10, '11M) was recruited for a position as a senior consultant at Hanover Communications, a public relations firm based in London.

"One of my main clients—and the reason I was hired—is the European Commission," says Bateas, whose undergraduate degree is in communication studies. "[The recruiter] was specifically searching for someone with PR experience, but also knowledge of the EU, as well as the ability to speak some European languages."

The EUPS program, which leads to a master of arts in political science, is based in Florence, Italy, and includes study trips to the European Parliament and other EU institutions.

'Hands-on experiences from the European Union Policy Studies program, which I could not have gotten in the U.S., have been hugely beneficial. They have given me much more insight into how things actually work.' —Lauren Perez ('11M)

Bateas' classmate in the EUPS program, Lauren Perez ('11M), first studied abroad during her undergraduate career at Bucknell University. Prior to enrolling in graduate school at JMU, she taught high school social studies. "In every interview I got for teaching jobs, including the one that I ended up taking, they mentioned that study abroad was part of what impressed them on my resume," she says. "It also allowed me to be a better teacher, by bringing my experiences and photographs into the classroom."

Perez is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Pittsburgh. She credits the EUPS program for her decision to focus on the EU for her doctoral studies. "The hands-on experiences from EUPS, which I could not have gotten in the U.S., have been hugely beneficial. They have given me much more insight into how things actually work."

Keith Holland had high expectations when he signed up to participate in JMU's summer program in Malta as an undergraduate. He was attracted to the program for its focus on sustainable resource management, a passion he has carried into his work as an engineer. After graduating from JMU, Holland went on to earn his master's degree and doctorate in mechanical and aerospace engineering. In 2009, he returned to JMU as a faculty member in the recently formed department of engineering.

Based on his undergraduate study abroad experience, Holland has sought to expand international experience opportunities for engineering and related disciplines. Since his return, he has taught in or co-led three summer programs in Malta as well as the Kenya Field School.

'An understanding of the community's culture, history and economy is as critical to a viable problem solution as a sound technical design.' —Keith Holland, assistant professor, JMU engineering department

Holland says, "I see direct connections to my study abroad experiences and my success as an undergraduate and graduate student, and now a faculty member. Planning and contributing to students' learning experiences abroad is incredibly rewarding. I enjoy learning alongside the students and helping them to realize that an understanding of the community's culture, history and economy is as critical to a viable problem solution as a sound technical design."

One more thing worth noting about Holland's initial trip to Malta—he met his future wife during the trip. Together, they now raise three children in Harrisonburg. "Studying abroad changes your perspectives on life and the world," Holland says. "I know that I will want my own children to have their own study abroad experiences."

Learn more about Study Abroad opportunities at JMU.

Published: Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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