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W&L Boosts the Value of Study-Abroad Experience for Students

With college graduates looking for an edge as they enter the job market, does listing a study-abroad experience on one’s résumé make a difference to potential employers?

Laurent Boetsch, director of international education at Washington and Lee University, posed that question to a couple dozen W&L alumni whose jobs include reviewing applications.

“I asked these alumni who live all over the world this question: ‘What value do you give to somebody who applies for a job or internship and lists study abroad on the résumé?” Boetsch said. “Their answer was, basically, that it had no value. . . . unless . . . the applicants can articulate why the study abroad experience was important to them, what use they made of it when they returned and why it’s important for the job that they are applying for.”

That answer validated for Boetsch the approach Washington and Lee has adopted for study abroad as part of the University’s new strategic initiative for global learning.

In the past, Boetsch acknowledges, study abroad was primarily a personal experience for individual students who chose to venture out of the country at some point during their four years.

“It used to be that you came back from study abroad with an experience that was very, very personal,” Boetsch said. “You had great memories. You had a photo album. You had postcards that your mother had collected. But that was as far as it went.”

Beginning in the 2011–2012 academic year, W&L began to view study abroad in three phases: the preparation, the opportunity abroad, and the integration of the experience into their lives back on the campus. Boetsch believes that improving the third phase can help students in a job search.

At the same time, Boetsch acknowledges that the return stage is the most complicated. Some students may have had more exhilarating experiences than others; some students will be less inclined to share their experiences with a wider audience.

“We have  to be able to accommodate the variety of experiences and to allow students to reflect on the time spent abroad,” he said. “Then, rather than  give students a list of topics we think they ought to address, we are providing many different contexts for them to engage with students and faculty on campus about their time away .”

For instance, a group of students themselves created a group, Plan for Tomorrow, that has put developed sessions for returning students to share their experiences in an academic setting  . At Parents’ Weekend in the fall and Alumni Reunions in the spring, students present poster sessions on their trips. In addition, the University’s Writing Center helps students write about their experience, and the Career Development Center is incorporating questions about study abroad into mock interviews.

In addition to the traditional semester-long or year-long immersion programs, W&L students now have other types of experiences abroad. There are the four-week Spring Term trips with W&L faculty members, summer internships, and even brief tours like the University Singers took to Italy earlier this year.

For Boetsch, each of those experiences counts as study abroad, but they must all be viewed differently.

“In the past, study abroad was probably for the more adventurous student. That may still be true for those students who choose to be immersed in the culture and language for as much as a semester or even a year,” he said. “But there are all kinds of experiences abroad, and every one of them has a certain value.

“For instance, some students are looking at opportunities that are less adventurous than spending a year living with the Bedouins. For those students, four weeks with a W&L professor in Denmark is what they may find comfortable, and who knows where that can lead?”

Boetsch emphasized that while the new initiatives could provide a graduate with an advantage in the job search, the driving force behind the program is not job placement, it’s education.

“For today’s students, all of these various study-abroad experiences open up opportunities, both professional and non-professional. Once they begin nurturing them in themselves, it never stops,” he said. “That makes a difference in today’s world. It’s how this generation of students is going to live their lives.”

This is the first year that W&L is awarding Cultural Immersion Certificates as an incentive and a reward to those students who have shown significant commitment to and understanding of global interaction. The University awarded the first such certificate in December 2012 to Dani Breidung, a member of the Class of 2013, who completed her degree requirements early. This spring, 33 students in the graduating class spent enough time abroad to qualify; 10 students applied for and received certificates.