Of all the ways a person can prepare for a career, spending time far from the classroom and away from familiar surroundings may actually have the most impact.
Lisa Blenkinsop, manager of the Studies Abroad program at the University of Guelph, hears this feedback over and over again from students who have spent time studying abroad. They tell her how the trip changed them personally, resulting in extra self-confidence, independence, maturity, empathy and more.
The experience and personal growth gained from studying abroad can really set students apart in the employment world, says Blenkinsop. That includes the farm world too.
“Many of the traits that employers are looking for are found in students who have studied abroad,” she says. These include curiosity, intercultural competence, interest in diverse working environments, second languages, problem-solving skills, and cross-cultural communication skills, plus enhanced abilities to tolerate ambiguity, take risks and work independently.
Meredith Blumthal, director of International Programs in Engineering at the University of Illinois, agrees. Experience gained from studying abroad translates directly into competencies that are valued in the workplace, she says. These include skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork and leadership.
For instance, navigating in a foreign land, especially in a place where you don’t speak the language, requires critical thinking and problem solving, says Blumthal. “You have to find other ways to communicate.”
Travelling or studying abroad can boost your global outlook, a necessity given the importance of international trade and our diverse populations today, says Blumthal. In this way, a manager might be a better mentor and be better able to work with different perspectives if they have had previous intercultural experiences.
Just the logistics of foreign travel can help people learn to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, a big plus no matter where you work, adds Jean Drasgow, director of ACES Career Services, also at the University of Illinois. On a daily basis, you are faced with questions such as, “Is my plane going to land on time so I can catch my connecting flight? What do I do if the rail engineers are on strike? What product can I buy in this country that will work for me?”
Those who have lived abroad also tend to have an expanded world view which can pay dividends in the workplace, says Blumthal. For instance, having experience working with others from diverse backgrounds and seeing how other farms approach the same challenges can help you think of more innovative solutions to your own farming contexts, she explains.
Creating lifelong friends and a network that spans the globe is another benefit of student exchanges. For Andria Karstens, who spent a term abroad in Perth, Australia, while in the agri-business program at the University of Saskatchewan, the international contacts and connections she developed are among the things she treasures most from her trip. “You meet people from all over the world, so you have to learn to work with others. The more you do this, the better you get at it,” she says.
While such testimonials are plentiful, it turns out their claims are also backed up by research. Two decades ago, U.S. sociologist Jack Mezirow developed the theory of transformative learning. In simple terms, transformative learning takes place when an individual changes their frame of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and by developing new ways of thinking about their world.
The benefit of transformative learning is that it helps a person to better adapt to change, explains Blumthal. Being able to handle feeling uncomfortable and being able to adapt in uncertain times are skills that both colleagues and superiors value, she says.
Being out of your element is a good way to speed up the transformative learning process, continues Blumthal.
Drasgow agrees. “I like to think of study abroad as transformative learning at warp speed,” she says.
University programs aren’t the only way to enjoy the benefits of study abroad. Graham Johnston who operates a dairy farm with his family near New Dundee, Ont., has high praise for the experience he gained while participating in a Junior Farmers Exchange to Australia and New Zealand. He says travelling gave him the opportunity to experience new perspectives, to see how agriculture has adapted to different landscapes, and to see various approaches for dealing with farm issues. “Seeing how people handle situations differently from what you are used to is a great reminder to keep an open mind and think outside the box on your own operation at home,” he says
It isn’t necessary to participate in a formal exchange to get the benefits of travel. Ian Mayberry who owns and operates a dairy goat farm with his wife Vicki near Ingersoll, Ont., says his time working in Saskatchewan and New Zealand (where he met Vicki) was irreplaceable.
“Our ability to manage stems from all of our life experiences,” Mayberry says. “The more you open yourself up to new experiences, and the greater the diversity of those experiences, the more receptive you are to trying new things and new technologies, to exploring new ideas.”
And when experiencing the inevitable bumps in the road that come with life, Mayberry says his travels help him to put things in perspective. “I have seen worse with my own eyes.”
Study abroad opportunities
Opportunities to study abroad come in many forms. For instance, the University of Guelph’s Centre for International Programs (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year), offers three different types of opportunities. In the oldest of the university’s study abroad programs, students attend an international university which has a formal agreement in place with the University of Guelph. Students take courses on exchange at the partner university and the credits are transferred back to Guelph when they return. The University of Guelph has 100 exchange partners around the world.
In the second type of program offered by the University of Guelph, a professor acts as a facilitator for semester-long group programs located in India, Shanghai, Krakow, London, Paris and Latin America.
The latest addition to the study abroad offerings are summer field schools. These programs are three to six weeks long and are co-ordinated by a University of Guelph professor.
About eight per cent of Guelph students take advantage of a study abroad opportunity while pursuing an undergraduate degree, says Lisa Blenkinsop, manager of the studies abroad program at the University of Guelph.
You meet people from all over the world, so you have to learn to work with others,” says Andria Karstens. “The more you do this, the better you get at it.”
Getting the most from a study abroad experience
- Live like a local, not a tourist. Do what the locals do. Shop at the local market and cook with local ingredients. Learn the language and customs.
- Don’t be afraid to live with a host family. This will give insight into the culture.
- Don’t always travel to other areas every weekend. Try to immerse yourself in the local culture.
- Go for the experience, not the selfies. Live the experiences you encounter. Stop thinking how you’ll make them into social media “likes.”
- Keep a blog or journal to document your journey so that you can look back on the experience and share it with others.
- Self-reflect. Think about your intercultural experiences, especially those that made you feel uncomfortable or out of your comfort zone. This will give you a chance to learn more about yourself, and the chance to process your experience.
- Connect with home, friends and family, but don’t overdo it. Study abroad is a great opportunity to be more independent.