Even when digital technology puts so much information at our fingertips, including the possibility of virtual travel, there is still no substitute for lived experience. This enables us to open up our perspective and appreciate fundamental similarities with peers elsewhere – important skills when collaborating with others in any context, especially in the workplace.
Studying overseas offers students fantastic preparation for the world of work. It pushes them to move outside their comfort zones and engage with a breadth of different people – students, teachers, host families – which is invaluable experience in preparing them for life beyond the classroom.
When working and living abroad, you are alert and receptive to all that is new around you, noticing and questioning so much more than when surrounded by all that is familiar. When away from home, our young people are learning to see the world from a completely different point of view, to have some of their values and preconceptions challenged and to see opportunities for themselves in the future that they simply would not have known about otherwise.
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Studying overseas also brings a new dimension to learning – seeing something in context to help bring about a better understanding of the how and the why – of history, and literature, of geography, or of a language.
It encourages students to embrace and appreciate diversity, to spend time with people from different cultures and see how the world works elsewhere. It teaches them how to negotiate life overseas, giving them an understanding of cultural conventions and sensitivities that could trip them up otherwise.
Students from St George’s School for Girls who study abroad develop a strong sense of autonomy, essential when undertaking international travel and great preparation for the working world. I see students coming back from time away with much more confidence, having grown in maturity, having learned more about themselves and with a wonderful "yes I can" outlook on life.
More than anything, they gain the wider experience of long-lasting friendships born out of the intensity of the experience of sharing in someone else’s daily life.
To be successful, the learning experience needs to be challenging and purposeful, with real opportunities for multinational groups to come together to solve problems and find new ways to communicate across language and culture. This teaches students resourcefulness and the importance of collaboration, knowing when to ask for help – key skills at work in any culture and country.
While international opportunities are great for our young people, it cannot be denied that the real value lies in exposing students to something that is new – a new environment or experience that leads them to ask questions – and this doesn’t have to be overseas. Our students have taken part in digital exchanges where experiences and learning are shared with peers in a different country online. They also benefit by observing how different countries manage and tackle problems such as climate change.
With the world of work being more globalised today than ever before, having international experience will help a young person stand out in the application process or at interview. There’s nothing more appealing than a candidate that has global experience. At any age, it gives them something substantial to discuss with a prospective employer and a depth of experience to draw on, as well as a broader outlook that will influence their approach to their work in future.
People will stand out for what they have done abroad – and with the world of work increasingly competitive, there’s surely no better time for such experience.
Alex Hems is head of St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh