Archive for 2009

Attention students going abroad with parents giving you crap about it, ctd.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

The British Council agrees with IES Study Abroad (whose recent study shows study abroad experiences give U.S. college students a decided “edge” in the global job market):

Venturing overseas to get a degree makes you attractive to employers – and it’s fun.

Thanks to David Comp for the tip on this article. David also points to the oddly cheery “and it’s fun” in the subtitle, as well as the fact that this fun factor (which we can’t help agree with) is never discussed in the actual article. David asks: “Why then did the author feel the need to include this in the sub-title of the article?” A good question, especially when you consider the last line of the article:

“If you don’t like it, you can always go home.”

Fair enough and certainly true. But related to both David’s take on the balance between an academically rigorous study abroad program and one in which students are able to travel, drink “underage,” and generally cut loose, as well as this idea of whether study/living abroad is always “fun,” I’ll throw out there that: 1) life abroad is not always fun and 2) even the un-fun parts can still be beneficial.

A quick example: my girlfriend studied abroad in Paris for a semester, though it was supposed to be a year: she cut it short because the experience was a difficult one for her (she didn’t like it, so she went home, I suppose). That doesn’t mean she didn’t like everything about the experience. There were many parts of France and the French and life with her host family that she loved. But there were also an overwhelming number of difficulties (expenses and difficulties with overaggressive and culturally-insensitive French men, to name but two) that made her experience a truly “un-fun” one, so much so that she cut her time there short. She didn’t have “fun” on her study abroad experience in the same way many people do—traveling every weekend and drinking into the wee hours every night. Yet her experience in Paris was still very formative. She gained important skills that she continues to use to this day—not just language and cultural skills, but also perseverance, adaptation, and self-reliance. Despite some negative experiences, she still holds a great affection for France and the French people. And despite the fact that she wasn’t able to travel all over Europe like many of her classmates, she came away from the experience with a desire to see more and go further, a desire which she has been trying to satisfy through further international experience and travel as she gets older.

As David says, everyone has a different definition of fun. In the same way, the “success” of a study abroad experience can come in different ways for different people. It’s important to both be open to what comes your way while you’re actually studying abroad, and to allow yourself the opportunity to discover how that study abroad experience continues to affect you (perhaps in unexpected ways) as you move further away from it.

Give it a ponder

Friday, December 4th, 2009

When sending out any email or other type of communication during your job search, it never hurts to take your time and do it right, to, as the wonderfully strange James Lipton says, give it a ponder:

Lots more Lipton here. Of course, any Lipton reference inevitably brings us back to Will Ferrell and a scrumtralescent Alec Baldwin:

Attention students going abroad with parents giving you crap about it

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Something for you to counter that crap with: an IES Abroad study that shows study abroad experiences give U.S. college students a decided “edge” in the global job market:

Parents of returning study abroad college students found the experience initiated a sea-change in their willingness to be more responsible, act independently, and take on the world by themselves.

I place this and other arguments like it in the category of “things I wished I’d known 7-10 years ago when debating my dad about the merits of going abroad.” That I would be gaining “maturity, self-confidence, appreciation for other cultures, and independence,” marketable skills in any profession, would probably have sounded a lot better than, “Well, uh, why not? I know you don’t want me living in the basement anymore anyway…”

In other news, was my study abroad really 10 years ago? Almost. Guh.

Cross-cultural communication, cultural anthropology, and the Human Terrain System

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I’m only now getting around to reading the November Atlantic (frequent WW readers already know of my obsession with the mag and its blogs), and one of its 27 brave new thinkers caught my attention: Montgomery McFate. Not only because her fantastic name reads like that of a Bond girl, but also because of the work she’s done as a cultural anthropologist recruited by the Pentagon to develop the Human Terrain System. HTS describes its goals as such:

The near-term focus of the HTS program is to improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed; however, in the long-term, HTS hopes to assist the US government in understanding foreign countries and regions prior to an engagement within that region.

The areas of cross-cultural communication, intercultural understanding, and cultural anthropology strike me as particularly ripe for talented, linguistically-skilled and culturally-nuanced people looking for an internationally-focused career —and as areas, as the HTS makes clear, where there is a lot of work to be done:

Iraqi drivers would unaccountably fail to stop when ordered to at checkpoints, and American soldiers, fearing a suicide bombing, would open fire—sometimes killing innocents. One possible reason was a devastatingly simple cultural confusion: the American gesture for “stop”—arm straight, palm out—means “welcome” in Iraq. “This and similar misunderstandings have deadly consequences,” McFate wrote in Joint Force Quarterly in 2005.

Luby Ismail, profiled in Working World the book, runs Connecting Cultures, which facilitates diversity training and cross-cultural awareness for a variety of clients (including the military). A good resource for those interested in cross-cultural work is the Intercultural Management Quarterly and its corresponding institute at American University run by Dr. Gary Weaver, a former professor of mine at AU and something of a legend in the cross-cultural communication field.

The racial gap in the job hunt

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

I read with interest this piece in the NYTimes yesterday about the racial gap in the job hunt and felt it was worthy of attention, and perhaps comment, in this space—though I really didn’t know how to thoughtfully add to the discussion, as racism in my career has never reared its nasty head (either directly, as I’ve always been a white job applicant, or indirectly, as I’ve never personally witnessed outright workplace racial discrimination).

Luckily Ta-Nehesi Coates steps in and does the heavy lifting for us. His take on all matters black and white is as thoughtful, thought-provoking, and balanced as it gets. If you don’t read him regularly, I would recommend it.

UPDATE: It also occurs to me to acknowledge, in the context of the international affairs arena (though this could apply in any industry), the discrimination a job applicant with a “non-American” sounding name could face. The Times article points out that Barry Jabbar Sykes, ”who has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, now uses Barry J. Sykes in his continuing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life. ‘Barry sounds like I could be from Ireland,’ he said.”

Did the name Jabbar imply to potential employers that he’s black (which he is)? Non-American (which he isn’t)? Perhaps Muslim (no discussion of his religious affiliation, which is how it should remain)? Some combination of the three? Do applicants for a U.S.-based job, no matter their race or country of origin, face discrimination if they have a “foreign” name, one that isn’t boilerplate Anglo-Saxon? It’s certainly possible. Perhaps a “foreign-sounding” name indicates the applicant is a non-native English speaker, and thus doesn’t possess language skills that are up to par for the job? Or the requisite cultural skills? Every new job has a learning curve, but perhaps the “non-American” applicant’s learning curve will be too long to make it worthwhile to hire him or her? It’s actually quite easy to see how someone (even myself) could judge an applicant in these ways solely based on their “foreign” name or the “foreign” manner in which their resume or cover letter is put together, etc. (Does my recent rant about “odd” cover letter salutations fall into this category? Seems like it easily could, and this may be something I need to check myself on.) Of course it’s up to every job applicant, no matter their name, race, or country of origin, to put together their application in a professional way–clear, cohesive, concise, well-written, no grammatical or copy-editing errors, suitable for the cultural/national context in which they’re applying. But it’s also up to the hiring manager to view each application and its inherent parts with no prejudgment or bias.

As to those “foreign-sounding” names…if a person’s name says very little about what they look like, it says far, far less about who they actually are and what they can do. Even so, the human temptation to assume based on surface indicators stubbornly remains.

Reality check: are the jobs out there?

Monday, November 30th, 2009

An Andrew Sullivan reader is having a rough time finding that first job out of college:

I’ve only had five cumulative months of employment since, this in spite of a “practical” degree (economics) from a “good” school (East Coast whatever – if my situation is any indication, an Ivy degree doesn’t mean jackshit). Friends of mine with relatively less worldly degrees in many cases have not been able to find a job at all in over a year. And it is not that we’re just sitting on our asses, playing video games because we think we’re above a certain kind of work – this high-handed claptrap is perhaps the most irritating snobbery of so-called “experts”, of a piece with their stellar market analysis over the last decade. No, when we say we can’t get a job, we mean we can’t get any job.

Certainly white-collar jobs, those that we thought we were being prepared for, are so few and far between that they’ve become the stuff of lore, a mythical entity. When someone manages to snag one of those these days it’s treated like a fucking miracle, complete with celebration and deepest envy both. This just for a job! Not two years ago a job was practically a birthright, plentiful and in season; now it’s something to forage and kill for. But we’re having to compete now for jobs that anyone can do – which makes it that much harder to get them as well. Temp agencies mostly turn us away. Shit, even the damned Safeway near me isn’t hiring. I’m perfectly content to bag groceries or wash cars or do construction, but there isn’t a scrap of work to be had.

If all that sounds unbelievable, then you just don’t know what it’s like right now for young, inexperienced people whose first taste of the labor market has been one of closed doors and pounded pavement and steadily increasing panic. At the moment I do have a part-time temp job and I’m grateful for it, but I don’t know how long it’ll last. Every time a superior passes my desk I quake because he or she could be coming to give me the axe – this is how we fortunate employed spend our days, adrenaline-riddled and constantly on tenterhooks. I don’t have health insurance. I’m engulfed in student loans.

How does this compare with your experiences? Are recent college graduates looking for work in international education, exchange, and development having this much trouble? Is the white-collar job in international affairs out there to be had, or rather a “mythical entity”?

A few links I’d neglected to post

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

And then I’m off for the holiday:

IIE’s Open Doors 2009 report was released last week. We paid close attention to this at the Alliance, but I forgot to mention it here. So, here you go. Open Doors is the standard for international educational mobility data—and the 2009 report happily illustrates that the number of foreign students studying at U.S. universities and Americans studying abroad are both up more than 8 per cent. Still, only slightly more than 260,000 Americans are studying abroad, which is not enough…

…and apparently President Obama agrees, as he announced that he wants 100,000 Americans studying in China (which is a pretty hefty increase from the current number of just over 13,000). How and when this will happen remains to be seen, but we are, as always, optimistic.

Have Work, Will Travel — An Australian world traveler makes the case for an expanded working holiday program in the United States.

Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Mad Men fans:

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone:

“The wanderlust of a new generation”

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

In so many ways, such a beautiful thing. If my own generation (I’m pushing 30—guh) is one in which the world knows no boundaries and international interaction is an accepted, common, and well-loved part of personal and professional life, then those younger than me—the “next” generation—is pushing this concept to Jean Luc Picard-like heights. And this, it’s worth repeating, is a beautiful thing. It’s one of the reasons I got into the international exchange field. The more and the earlier young people are exposed to the wondrous variety yet common humanity that makes up our world, the better—the better for them, for their families, their countries, their chosen professions, and all of us.

From a purely practical perspective, though, this wanderlust can throw up professional development hurdles. That is, us young folk inflicted with wanderlust, because we are fixated on traveling to exotic locations as part of our careers, tend to view potential job opportunities solely by the travel opportunities inherent within them. I’ve said this before, like yesterday, and I’m drawn to it again because of this BusinessWeek article focusing on the top employers for those who want “international work that will take them abroad.”

I already made my argument yesterday as to why one will be well-served to examine the entirety of a potential job or career track rather than focusing only on the travel aspect, so I won’t rehash things again. But I will make a point I don’t think I’ve made as extensively in this space as I should: that an internationally-oriented job can be deeply fulfilling and help to satisfy wanderlust even if travel isn’t a regular component. In my case, my days are spent deep in issues of international exchange, which I find to be cool and terribly fulfilling. Because I’m immersed in a professional world that is completely international, I always feel international, regardless of where I physically am.

I may be sitting at a desk in DC, but I’m emailing with the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. I’m contemplating the potential implications of the lifting of the travel ban to Cuba or of Obama’s promise to send 100,000 American to study in China. I’m meeting with an education ministry representative from Ireland who is helping in our efforts to convince Congress that exchange programs need to be properly, but not overly, regulated. I’m talking to the Fulbright Commission in Mexico. I’m talking to an EducationUSA advisor in Budapest. I’m talking to an exchange agency in Bangkok who is helping to recruit our next international intern.

True, I get very excited about the actual international trips I get to take and for me, like for so many of us, the ability to travel (for work and for pleasure) is a big part of my existence. But the fact that I am immersed in an international world and international issues with international people on a daily basis and in my daily work is not something I take for granted—and all of this does, I find, help to satisfy my wanderlust during those times when I’m not able to jet off for some place new.

Mentoring update

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

A month and a half ago or so, I noted that I am now, despite my reservations about the concept of a formal and prescribed mentor-protege relations, an official American University mentor. I also mentioned that my AU senior and I seemed to be on the same page about things—we don’t really know how this is supposed to work, but we’ll just keep an open mind and see how things progress.

And I’m happy to report that they’re moving along well, and naturally. We haven’t felt the need to force things—say, by going to a professional event together simply because we felt like that’s what we’re supposed to do. Rather, we’ve kept it low key and that’s worked well for us. We’ve met for a beer and just chatted—a bit about school and career stuff, but mostly about ourselves, getting to know each other. She came to an Alliance event, heard a Congressman speak, and got to meet several people in our field and find out more about what kind of work they’re doing. And we’ve kept in good touch via email. I’ve forwarded her articles or event listings I’ve come across, and she’s asked me questions that happen to pop into her mind. For example, the other day she emailed me:

Do you keep in contact with your former employers? And how much contact with people is enough to claim that you are in contact with them? Is this like you exchanged business cards with them at an event once upon a time or you drop them an e-mail to say hi every few weeks?

I realize the obvious answer is that it is entirely circumstantial and depends but I thought I’d ask. The reason is that I will probably have to start applying for jobs in the near future (scary!) and will probably need references. Because I was gone all last year I don’t have references from my junior year (unless I apply somewhere in [country where she studied]) and will probably have to depend on my supervisor from sophmore year internship (and wherever I intern next semester). Is it unfair for her to be called by a prospective employer if I haven’t talked to her in a couple of months (I contacted her over the summer)?

A good question, one I was happy to weigh in on. I like that she’s thinking about things like this and that she feels she can ask me about them—not because I know the right answer but rather because it’s good to discuss and talk stuff like this out. Even if we don’t arrive at an answer, at least we’re moving the discussion along.

So I’m pleased with the way the official mentoring duties have gone so far and hope to have more positive updates soon. After the jump, my answer to her email question.


I get it: you want to work abroad.

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

But what kind of work do you want to be doing abroad?  Why do you want to work abroad?

These are questions I continually raise in my sessions. Traveling/working abroad is not synonymous with pursuing an international career. They can overlap, and for many of us hopefully they will—but they are not one in the same. Just because a job has a travel component or allows you to live in a different country doesn’t mean it’s the right job for you or your international career. It might mean that, but you’ve got to look deeper—go beyond the travel component.

This issue loomed large during my sessions in Tulsa last week. At an evening session last Tuesday, I first threw out a few remarks and then chaired a panel discussion that included a Foreign Service Officer, a TU marketing professor who had done the Peace Corps, the Director of Business Intelligence for the Hilti Corporation (based in Liechtenstein, Hilti “develops, manufactures, and markets products for the construction and building maintenance industries, primarily to the professional end-user”), and the Director of Global Business Services for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. It was a great panel, representing a diverse array of jobs/experiences with international elements to them.

Yet I kept being forced to draw the conversation back from discussions of “how will this job take me abroad?” to more concrete discussions of “yes, but what do you actually do in your job?”

For example, the Foreign Service Officer spoke about his 32 years living in umpteen different countries and some of the cool adventures he had. All great stuff. But I felt compelled to draw him back to the specifics: What was his daily work like? What did he spend his days doing? He was a consular officer—how did his work differ from the work of other professional cones in the Foreign Service? What about some of the difficulties that come with moving every few years to a new country? With living in difficult and dangerous locations? The travel is cool and all, but it won’t matter unless you enjoy the work you’re doing and the life you’re leading.

Also, take the Hilti representative. He spent much of his time talking about his company’s internship program, how students are recruited for it, how one might get hired on full time and then, after that, what it would take to work abroad or travel abroad regularly from a U.S. location. It was all about the travel. Which, again, is all well and good, but, again, I felt the need to draw him back with a simple question: but what do you actually do? I had no concept of what kind of a company Hilti actually is, let alone what this Director of Business Intelligence’s job might entail on a day to day basis.

So he told us a bit about it. And I’ll admit, I kind of zoned out. It had something to do with sales, more to do with statistical analysis and several other things that make me break into a cold sweat. The next day I spoke with a TU student who’d done an internship with Hilti and found it not to be to her liking. She’d been drawn in by the sell of the “international” and hadn’t looked deeply at what kind of company Hilti is and what she’d be doing as an intern. What she ended up doing were tasks not at all suited to the kind of work (she discovered) she’d like to be doing.

I don’t mean to bad mouth Hilti here—on the contrary, it seems like a fine company and its rep at TU a funny and interesting guy. I also understand that there are many people who would love to work at a place like Hilti and do the kind of work that makes me break into a cold sweat. My point is that we shouldn’t be judging a job or a potential opportunity by the simple fact of whether it has an international travel component. That may be one part of our judgment, but we also need to be looking at what we’ll be doing day in and day out during that job. How do we want to spend our days? I want to travel to great places, for sure—but I also want to do fulfilling work that matters to me and that I enjoy. Work that takes place in an environment I can thrive in and with people I like. Work that allows me to live the kind of life I want to live. Don’t let the travel part trump all other considerations, or you run the risk of finding yourself in a job that travels, yes, but one that you really don’t like all that much.

An odd new trend in cover letters?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

A quick rant: We’re currently accepting applications for the Alliance’s spring 2010 internship (the deadline is Friday if you’re interested), and I’ve noted with bemusement and confusion a cover letter quirk that I’d seen sporadically before but that now seems to be in full bloom: the use of the full name in the salutation.  As in:

“Dear Mark Overmann” or “Dear Mr. Mark Overmann”

I find this to be really weird. I understand the necessity of not presuming gender, especially with “less common” or “not gender obvious” names—you don’t want to run the risk of calling a Mr. a Ms., or vice versa (hence the “Dear Mark Overmann,” I presume—perhaps Mark isn’t an obviously male name? This could be true, especially for non-American and non-English-as-a-first-language applicants). But seriously, a simple look at my picture and bio, conveniently posted one click away on the Alliance website, shows that, indeed, I am a male, which seems to me permission to go ahead and use the common salutation of Mr. followed by the family name.

And what to make of “Mr. Mark Overmann”? This is the truly weird one to me. If you’ve already determined that I’m male, isn’t it completely stilted and strange to keep my first name in the salutation? Or did my mom and grade school teachers instruct me incorrectly on how to address a letter? Am I being culturally insensitive here? Am I wrong in forcing my American notions of format and protocol on all job seekers, especially if they aren’t American, even though we’re an U.S-based (albeit internationally-focused) organization? Perhaps I’m just being too stubborn and cranky and should take it easy on vulnerable job seekers who are only trying to be politically correct?

Regardless, I’ll admit my first reaction when I see these odd salutations in a cover letter tends to be: the applicant hasn’t done enough research on the position and the organization to know who it is they’re writing. And I don’t mean research on me here—my ego isn’t so big that I expect internship applicants to have my career details committed to memory before applying. But I do expect applicants to have a good idea (or at least to convince me that they have a good idea) of why they are applying for this particular internship versus the many others out there. I know that most applicants are applying for this internship among many others. That’s totally fine and to be expected. But what makes one application stand out from the others is when the applicant has taken the time (even just a bit of it) to tailor their application to our organization and to make us believe (no matter how true it is) that they really want to work not just anywhere that does international stuff, but here and with us.

And to me, the salutation is a small but somehow still important indication of whether an applicant has done this or not. If you haven’t even taken the time to understand at least a little bit to who it is you’re writing (and Google makes this, on average, pretty darn easy to figure out), what other details are you going to neglect or plain ignore?

From exchange student to microbrewer

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

I’m tardy in my follow-up from Tulsa (which was a well-spent day and a half during International Education Week chatting with students about international careers), but before I do a full wrap-up, a quick study abroad story of the “you never know where things will take you” nature. As relayed by my Tulsan dinner compatriots at a dark, kind-of-hipster but still kind-of-old-timey and altogether charming restaurant called Lola’s on the Bowery, while drinking a Marshall’s Atlas IPA:

Eric Marshall was studying in the unique International Business and Language program at the University of Tulsa when he decided to study abroad in Germany. His time in Germany—namely his time spent at pubs and amidst the local beers—was so formative that he decided to return after graduation and take a self-guided learning tour of German breweries, learning the secrets of the craft. He used his business skills honed in the IBL program and his beer-brewing skills honed in Germany to create the Marshall Brewing Company, the results of which I discovered are quite hoppy and refreshing.

You never know where study abroad might take you…


Off to Tulsa

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

I’m heading out to the University of Tulsa to celebrate International Education Week and speak at TU’s International Careers Symposium. More when I’m back east!

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise.”

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

As a devil’s advocate-like follow up to last week’s take on why travel really, really isn’t a waste of time, a few quotes from some luminaries on why, sometimes, it can be better to stay at home and how what we thought we might have left behind actually goes wherever we do. First, Emerson:

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise.

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

After the jump, GK Chesterton and one of my favorites, David Foster Wallace.


Get a job abroad, where there are apparently more than in the U.S.

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009 tells us how to “tap into the growing overseas job market.” Jean Marc Hachey gives some good tips in the second half of the article, noting that international/globally-minded employers aren’t usually looking for a regional specialist, but rather someone with previous overseas experience and cultural skills that will enable him or her to adapt and roll with the punches:

What they are especially interested in is that you can demonstrate that you have crossed over various cultures at various times, and you have a set of skills that mean you can quickly be up and running in new cultures.

Mary Anne Thompson, quoted earlier in the article, makes what strikes me as a big generalization:

In order to apply for a work permit or visa on your behalf, most employers have to prove there’s no one in that country with the credentials to do the job, and show that they advertised the job and no locals applied for it.

“Most employers?” Is this really a fair statement to make when we’re talking not about a particular industry or city or even country, but rather “the world”? I’m sure this can be true in certain instances (it can be now in the recession-ravaged U.S.), but is this really so true that one can generalize like this and not be rather misleading? Maybe so, but it just strikes me as an odd thing to go out there and state as fact.