According to a report from the American Council on Education, more than 80 percent of high school students nationwide plan to study abroad at some time during their four years of college. At Wake Forest, more than 60 percent of students spend anywhere from a few weeks to a summer to an academic year visiting countries around the world — ranking the University sixth among U.S. colleges and universities in number of students studying abroad.
Meaningful study abroad experiences, however, require more than just visiting the tourist sites and trying new foods. To enjoy the self-discovery that comes from international education, students need to interact deeply with people from cultures different from their own, says Director of International Studies Steven Duke. They also need to understand how their experiences are relevant to their lives after graduation.
To help students make the connections between their study abroad adventures and their personal strengths and career journey, Wake Forest offers an international studies course, “Cross-cultural Engagement and Re-entry,” that uses storytelling to connect the learning that happens abroad to the job search.
“Recruiters hear every day that a potential hire has leadership skills or flexibility or adaptability,” says Associate Director of Career Education and Counseling Carolyn Couch. “When students share stories that show how they have developed and used these skills, especially as global citizens, they prove they really do know themselves and what strengths they can bring to an organization.”
Couch offers an example of a story a student shared with her. While studying abroad in Ireland, the student and some friends decided to go to France. The group researched hotels and found what they thought was an inexpensive hotel where they could stay. When the group went to pay their bill, however, they discovered the cost was much more than expected. The hotel manager was angry, thinking the students were not going to pay. In his frustration he began shouting in French, which none of the travelers could understand. This young women decided to try speaking Spanish. As it turned out, the hotel manager also spoke Spanish, and once he understood the situation, allowed one of the students to leave the hotel to go to an ATM for money to pay the bill.
“Which is a potential employer more likely to remember,” Couch asks, “the statement, ‘I have good problem-solving skills,’ or a story about how this young woman was able to stay calm and figure out a way to communicate with an irate hotel manager, in a foreign country, speaking in a language she didn’t understand?”
Teaching students how to identify and apply the skills they develop abroad is one of three ways the University ensures the study abroad experience is one that includes cultural engagement.
In addition to the re-entry course, students can take a course before they travel that helps them prepare for the challenges of being in an unfamiliar country — reviewing things such as cultural differences and homesickness, and structuring a plan for ways to meet and engage with people from different countries.
Another course helps students understand cultural challenges and improve both verbal and nonverbal communications styles while they are abroad.
Wake Forest faculty and staff teaching abroad are also learning new ways to help students get out and meet the local people through the WISE Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement. WISE, a Wake Forest faculty initiated program, draws educators from colleges across the region to discuss ways to help students get the most from their travel abroad.