When Monica Arora decided to pursue her MBA, she wasn’t willing to settle for becoming just another business graduate.
“I felt like I needed to differentiate myself,” she says. Having spent a semester in Norway during her undergrad, Arora already knew the transformative power that studying abroad could have. That’s why she chose to enroll in Schulich School of Business’s International MBA program, where she completed a mandatory work term in India and a semester in Thailand.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work internationally, but I knew that an IMBA would teach me how to thrive, be more open-minded and work with a diverse group of stakeholders,” Arora explains. Her decision paid off—after graduating, she was hired by Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. “One of the major reasons they hired me was because I had international experience,” she says.
Arora, like many students, is part of a cohort that is realizing that time spent overseas is no longer a chronological gap on a resume—it’s value-added experience for students and prospective employers alike.
However, some employers may still be hesitant to sign on a wanderlusting applicant. Vivian Trinh, 29, graduated from the University of Alberta with a business degree in 2006. Since then, she has been traversing the globe, including three months spent volunteering in Bolivia and a year teaching English in South Korea.
“It's been a cycle of working, quitting, travelling, coming home, looking for work, and doing it all over again,” Trinh explains. Now based in Victoria, BC, she is struggling to find full-time employment. While she attributes this to a number of factors, including a very tough job market, she feels that her time overseas is one reason for her unemployment. “Very often, in a job interview, I'm asked if I can commit to the role for a long period of time since I have a pattern of leaving,” she says. “I can never guarantee them that I will.”
But Trinh’s perceived commitment issues aren’t the only thing holding her back. After leaving multiple job interviews in the last two months feeling fairly confident—only to be told later that she didn’t get the job—Trinh started following up with prospective employers. In each case, she was told that a candidate who had experience more directly related to the job had been hired.
Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, a career resource website for recent graduates, says that this is the key reason that, when it comes to choosing an international experience, not all gap years are built the same.
“[International experience] is well known to be an enriching part of your career and your background—as long as it doesn’t take interfere with the regular steps that you need to take to get meaningful entry-level work,” she says. “You need to think about how you’re going to explain your experience to employers when you get back.”
Friese recommends that students seek out opportunities strategically, including choosing well-known international universities, overseas work placements directly related to career goals, and volunteer abroad opportunities that build substantive skills. “From an employer perspective, they’re looking at thousands upon thousands—to put it harshly—clones. Anything that you have in your background that helps sets you apart or that makes you unique is important,” she says.
Joseph Palumbo, Executive Director of the Career Development Centre at the Schulich School of Business, agrees. “I think any international experience is a real edge for employment candidates because it separates them from everyone else. Companies have become more global and have a greater global operation. You need people who understand language and culture and how business is done around the world.”
In addition to working overseas, Palumbo believes that studying abroad is also invaluable. Through experiencing different teaching and learning styles, students develop skills that are vital to surviving a workplace environment—including dealing with co-workers and communicating with bosses. (After all, understanding business jargon can sometimes feel like operating in a foreign language.)
For job seekers, it’s important to remember that employment is not just a one-way contract—it’s a two-way relationship, as well as an opportunity for growth and development. Companies are not just looking for bodies to fill a job description; they’re looking for candidates who will fit with their corporate culture and vision. This means applicants should seek out workplaces that mirror their own values and needs.
“If travel or learning about different cultures isn’t valued [by your prospective employer], but it’s valued by you, then there might not be a fit,” points out Friese. “As an applicant, you would have to think long and hard about whether that type of environment would be right for you.”
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