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Competencies Gained Through Travel

By Meredith Blumthal, Director, ACES Study Abroad and Jean Drasgow, Director, ACES Career Services

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Have you ever taken your kids out of school for a trip? Did you study abroad while you were in college? Both of these choices may seem indulgent on the surface. However, one could argue that they are opportunities for deep learning or transformative education.


Decades ago, Jack Mezirow, an American sociologist, coined the term Transformative Learning. In short, transformative learning is a process that has three dimensions: psychological (changes in understanding self), convictional (revision of belief systems), and behavioral (changes in lifestyle). In other words, transformative learning involves an alteration of perspective.


Travel should be at the top of a list of key ingredients for creating a transformative learning experience. What can more rapidly inspire a change of perspective than by seeing processes done differently and yet still successfully, or not having access to the things you take for granted (wi-fi), or not being able to order your favorite food?


So how is travel or study abroad relevant in the work place? The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) have developed a list of seven (7) competencies that employers agree new hires need to have. (For the complete list see here: Of these seven, Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Communications, Teamwork, and Leadership have a direct link to lessons learned from travel.


Travel by nature requires the traveler to take what they know and apply it to what they don’t know. Problem solving and dealing with ambiguity is common for a traveler. For example, how you buy fruit in a US grocery market (simply weighed at checkout) is different than in other parts of the world. In Beijing be sure to tie your fruit up in a bag, weigh it, print the label and secure it on the bag yourself before you check out. Otherwise you may be considered a thief!


Similar examples of transformative learning around a core employment competency can be related back to a travel/study abroad experience. Asking for directions from strangers who may not understand your attempt at their language forces you to communicate in different ways (pointing, gesturing, decoding words). If you are accustomed to thinking and communicating differently you may be open to new ideas – a valuable asset in a competitive business environment. Having experience communicating with others from diverse backgrounds may provide a more unique product for a design team than if everyone had the same experiences and background. A boss may be a better mentor and more sensitive to different perspectives if he/she has had previous intercultural experiences.


In the 2011 APLU article, Comparative Analysis of Soft Skills: What is Important for New Graduates, by Crawford, Lang , Fink, Dalton, and Fielitz, employers placed a higher value on the ability to deal with ambiguity than faculty, students, or alumni did. At a recent Ag & Food HR Roundtable conference, Fink hosted a live survey. Audience members were asked to rate their preference for new hires given the following scenario: all three candidates had intern experience related to the organization’s line of work and the audience had to choose between a) cross-cultural experience where the candidate had to live and learn or work in a substantially different environment from their home or school, b) leadership experience in student government and student clubs, or c) teamwork experience in running a student business or building a project for a national competition. The audience selected the cross-cultural experience by 46%; leadership by 15% and teamwork as 39%. Clearly the transformative educational experience offered through cultural immersion is valued by recruiters.


Many of the NACE competencies which employers deem as necessary for new hires can be honed from a study abroad or travel experience. Perhaps a study abroad alumnus who worked for a Fortune 25 company after graduation sums up the value of a cultural immersion experience best: “At [work] we constantly hear the word change. Change and your ability to react to it is what defines you as a professional. I truly wish students knew this. Your experience being uncomfortable, learning how to adapt and growing as a person/professional in uncertain times is what your colleagues and superiors value. I’ve only had one collegiate experience that brought together all of these things; my time studying in Sao Paolo, Brazil. I’d be lying if I said that I loved every second of it, it was difficult and trying at times. But looking back it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, not just from the vantage point of a student looking for a good time, but from a finance professional working for one of the largest, multinational companies in the world. Globalization is very real and developing a global outlook is becoming an absolute necessity in today’s workforce.”


No matter your chapter in life, it’s never too late to travel and engage in other cultures. Explore and see how another part of the country or world lives while making yourself a better employee.