Wednesday, 6 August 2014

From Airport to Internship: How a semester abroad prepared me for work

Today's blog post comes from Nicole Hoffman, CAPS' Communications Intern, who recently completed a semester abroad at Universit√© Catholique de Lille in Lille, France.

When my parents asked me why I wanted to spend a semester in France, I told them “studying abroad will make me more employable.” I had read it somewhere on a travelling website, and at the time I had suspected that it was an exaggerated statement, but it was reassuring to feel that there could be practical value to my trip. When I decided to go, it was to improve my French and to see a bit of Europe, but what I didn't expect was how much studying abroad would change me.

It wasn't until I returned that I discovered how much I had evolved during my exchange, and it wasn't until I started my new internship that I saw how the skills that I’d gained abroad have improved my competence in the workplace.

Adaptability and Openness to Change. On the first day of orientation in my French university, I met a student who was majoring in Languages. He had hardly introduced himself to me before he was complaining about life in France. He hated the food, his residence, the northern French accent, the weather and the university policies. Despite only having been there for a week, he seemed overwhelmed and was struggling with culture shock. He didn’t seem to know how to adapt to his new circumstances, and while I felt for him, I came to think of him as an example of how I didn’t want to spend my semester. If I concerned myself exclusively with the ways in which France was not like Canada, I would be perpetually unhappy, and would be unable to enjoy the amazing, exclusively French experiences. This goes doubly in the workplace, which can often be subject to change. You and your employer will both benefit if you are able to thrive in an evolving work environment, and are willing to try new positions or responsibilities.

Diplomacy and Interpersonal skills. When you’re an international student at another university, your closest friends are likely other international students. Essentially, this means that your friend group becomes a diverse mishmash of personalities and backgrounds. The personality clashes that resulted from this grouping were both frustrating and enlightening. I began to gauge my reactions carefully when speaking with my international friends. What was the source of my reaction? Was it a language barrier? A cultural difference?  How could I explain my position without seeming rude or aggressive? Refining this sort of tact took some time, but the experience taught me to be more open to other opinions. Every workplace is full of people with different ideologies and goals. Rather than allowing these clashes to bring productivity to a standstill, it is important to mediate and compromise with coworkers. After all, the collaboration of different perspectives is an opportunity for the generation of fresh ideas.

Confidence. When I first arrived in France, I discovered that I was nowhere near as fluent as I needed to be. I was embarrassed by my lack of proficiency, and found the idea of speaking to a francophone in their native tongue daunting. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to attempt a conversation with one of my French neighbors, but when I did, I found that she was more than willing to help me practice. She was patient with my clumsy French, and encouraged me to work with her on my speaking skills. The improvement was almost immediate. What I realised then was that I needed to learn to be confident not only in the knowledge that I already possessed, but in my ability to learn quickly. In an interview, an employer needs to be assured that new employees will become an active, growing part of the team. Don’t be shy about acknowledging your strengths, and think about how you can use them to expand your skill set to make yourself an invaluable asset.

Making Connections. I’ve never been one to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Unfortunately, when you have a train to catch and you need to find your platform, you don’t have the luxury of being timid. The ability of approach people was a requirement that, once I got used to it, became a pleasure. I made friends with people that I may have previously been too shy to approach, and every encounter brought me different information and connections from all over the world. It was like a networking crash-course for travelers. By becoming more outgoing, I opened myself up to countless friendships. In the professional world, networking can be invaluable both to yourself and your company. You never know what types of opportunities will arise from the people you meet. Whether they teach you something new, become a good friend, or turn out to be a valuable contact, it is always worth it to take the initial step and just say hello.

Looking back on how different I am now from the person that I was before my trip, it’s strange that I didn’t notice the change until I returned to Canada. While I didn’t truly go to Lille to become a better employee, I came back more open, motivated, independent, outgoing, confident and diplomatic than I ever thought I’d be. While all of these attributes are assets for an employer, they’ve also made me more engaged and happier in my work, which is infinitely more valuable than simply being “more employable.”