Moving From Study Abroad to Career Integration

The tradition of sending students abroad while in college has evolved substantially over the past several decades from educational travel during holiday breaks to substantial semester or year-long intensive programs of study. William Hoffa notes in his book A History of Study Abroad that any and all travel "has educational potential" regardless of its content or purpose. While there is no debate that an international experience has value, there is an emerging dialogue over what the ultimate goal or purpose of study abroad should be beyond mere exposure to cultures outside of one's culture of origin. Is exposure alone the ultimate goal? Does defining study abroad as global experience limit its value-added impact on key student outcomes? Does our traditional view of study abroad create a disconnect between academic, career and global activities for our students?

In an attempt to respond to these questions, many schools are looking at study abroad as an opportunity for career and academic integration versus a one dimensional global experience. This means that the goal for colleges and universities should be not only to increase the number of students who travel and/or take classes internationally, but also to examine the ways in which a meaningful global experience extends the knowledge gained in the classroom and prepares students to be global professionals upon graduation. Career integration means that academic, global and professional development experiences are provided as a coordinated effort to prepare students who are globally ready for both their professional and personal lives.

At first look, this may seem to be an idea without controversy. Why would anyone object to efforts that prepare students to be globally ready professionals and world-savvy citizens? Yet, a focus on career integration highlights the divide in the higher education community over whether education itself or employability is the ultimate goal of an undergraduate education. This dichotomy is perhaps fueled by the ongoing discussion of the cost of a college education and correlated measures that attempt to quantify the return on that investment. The significant attention being paid to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) has created a backlash in which the humanities-minded are defending the importance of the liberal arts and generalist education and are labeling the professional degrees as merely "job focused" or vocational in nature.

However, what is missing from this dialogue is a clear understanding of what employability requires, especially as we prepare students for what is clearly a global workplace. Skills that define students' employability include not only workplace skills (e.g., problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution) and academic knowledge (e.g., subject matter expertise), but also personal skills (e.g., initiative, integrity) and soft skills (e.g., communication, teamwork). Whether we are looking at global experience via study abroad, curriculum content through the choice of an academic major or professional development via internships, all aspects of the undergraduate education experience must work together to prepare the whole student to become a globally ready professional and world-savvy citizen. We diminish our students' abilities to understand, connect and communicate the ways in which what is learned inside the classroom connects with what is experienced outside of the classroom when we focus on the divide and don't take a more integrated approach.

Thus, we must remove any and all stigmas associated with the word "employability" in our discussions of undergraduate educational outcomes. Regardless of one's academic major, each student will eventually be employed whether that is in the public, non-profit or private sector, or if they elect to become an entrepreneur or business owner. At Pitt Business, we have developed the Global Business Institute as a key part of an academic portfolio designed to integrate the classroom experience with international internships, service-learning opportunities and meaningful cultural experiences. Understanding the key drivers of global employability should not detract from the value of all aspects of undergraduate education. The better we become at providing an integrated set of academic, career and global experiences for our students, the more we will add value to both their immediate educational experiences and their lifelong professional endeavors.