Study abroad experiences are immensely important, and this cannot be stressed enough. When originally writing this blog post, I was going to make a three-prong argument in the hopes of convincing people that study abroad experiences are important by (1) discussing how study abroad experiences help students pursue graduate-level educational opportunities; (2) how study abroad skills relate positively to the job market; and (3) how study abroad assists in-person development, which is not only useful for the academic and professional market but also adds to the quality of life. In my original post, I was prepared to raise statistics about how Americans are lagging behind our European counterparts in foreign language skills, and I was going to raise arguments about globalism and how we need to invest in learning how to live and work in a modern, globalized world. However, I realized this is a blog post and it would be far more impactful if I shared my personal experiences. While I sincerely believe that study abroad experiences are important for everyone, I will discuss why my study abroad experience was so important.
1. Pursuing Further Academic Goals
I studied abroad for an academic year in Berlin at Freie Universität Berlin (FU) through the Freie Universität Berlin European Studies Program (FU-BEST). I chose FU-BEST because my German was at a beginner-intermediate level and I felt that with FU-BEST’s strong immersive language program, I could make the most progress. Additionally, I furthered my undergraduate studies in philosophy and political science through my electives at FU-BEST. In the end, I went from B1/B2 German to B2/C1 German (A1 is a total beginner and C2 is fluent). The reason I mention is that I would not have made this much progress with my German language skills without having studied at FU and lived in Germany for the year.
I am not on an admissions committee and therefore cannot say that my German language skills and my time abroad are the definitive factors that helped me gain admittance to the Law Center at Georgetown University, but I certainly believe that these factors played a significant role in the screening process. Apart from the practical and tangible skills obtained from study abroad (e.g. language skills and the education from courses), I believe that what study abroad experience show admission committees are that students are curious about the world they live in; brave enough to take their curiosity to a foreign country and culture, and capable of living, studying, and working with people from a background entirely different from theirs. My experience at Georgetown Law thus far has demonstrated to me that these are invaluable traits because the community, student body, and culture at Georgetown Law (and many other universities) is international and diverse.
At the very least, I believe that study abroad experiences show admissions committees that a student is likely to be a good fit in their community.
2. The Job Market
As a first-year law student I, along with all the other first-year law students across the country, have spent spring semester looking for a summer internship. In every interview I obtained, my study abroad experiences came up for discussion and the faces of my interviewers lit up when they asked me about my experiences abroad. For example, in my interview for the law firm I will be working this summer, we discussed my foreign language skills and how I felt I would be a good addition to the firm for the summer. I discussed how my time abroad helped me learn German and that while I am not quite ready for legal work in German, I meet weekly with a tutor online to continue furthering my language skills. In answering the second question, I also discussed how my time abroad cultivated intercultural communication skills and demonstrated I am capable of succeeding in a completely new environment, which I believe is important for an international law firm. I am not sure if I could have effectively answered these questions if I did not have my study abroad experiences to point back to. Again, I am not saying studying abroad “landed me the job” but I think in a highly competitive market, it does help to distinguish candidates at this level.
3. Personal Development
As I am progressing further in my academic and professional career, I realize that the opportunities for me to take time off from my academic and professional goals to pursue opportunities that lend themselves to my personal development are becoming increasingly narrow. The law school career path is pretty straight forward and I will be working (hopefully) at law firms during the summer between my first and second year as well as my second and third year of law school; followed by studying for the bar after graduation and then beginning working at a firm in the fall. If all goes well, this is the path I will be following. I am so glad I studied abroad during my undergraduate education because apart from all the relevant academic and professional skills I gained, I grew tremendously as a person. I traveled all around Europe during school breaks while I was living in Berlin, I visited numerous museums and historic sites, I met countless fascinating people, made incredible friendships that I still have to this day, and I came out of my time in Berlin with a stronger relationship with myself. The Greek aphorism “know thyself” is well known and I feel that my time abroad provided me an opportunity to get to know myself more intimately. I certainly felt I came back more confident and secure in who I am. I also know a lot of people see study abroad as a frivolous time in a student’s life. And to an extent, yes, it is a frivolous time. But as I hope I demonstrated, this “frivolous” time helped propel my academic and professional career forward while providing me an opportunity to enrich myself. I sincerely believe we need to take time for personal development when we are young because it is increasingly more difficult as we get older. Study abroad is a powerful opportunity for personal development.
Where I stand today is a result of the choices I have made over a lifetime, but I strongly suspect that if I were to go back in time and convince myself to not study abroad for the academic year in Berlin at Freie Universität, I would not be at Georgetown Law and certainly not writing this blog post. Perhaps the blog post would not be the most significant change in my life, but I do believe not being at Georgetown Law would be a pretty significant change. I also would not be interning internationally at a law firm this summer where I will need to use my foreign language skills to communicate with associates and partners at the law firm. But more important than Georgetown Law or my summer internship, if I convinced myself not to study abroad, I do not think I would know myself as well as I do or have as strong of a relationship with myself. The cumulative experiences, skills, and lessons I gained from studying abroad have effectively changed my life. I know that perhaps studying abroad may not be for everyone or accessible to everyone. But I do hope people who are interested in studying abroad go and take the leap, and for people who are uninterested to reconsider what opportunities they may be missing by not considering this opportunity. Lastly, for students who feel this is not accessible to them because of aspects of their identity or perhaps financial constraints, I encourage these students to look to the Gilman Alumni community (we are quite diverse and open to answering questions and helping however we can) and I encourage these students to apply to the Gilman Scholarship. Studying abroad was a vital experience in my career and I cannot stress its importance enough.