Now replace “band camp” with abroad experience.
“This one time in Europe…”
You know you’ve heard it too many times. And if you’ve studied elsewhere, chances are you’ve fallen prey to the abroad-stories bug. This can either work to your advantage, or not so much.
I fell into the not-so-much category. When I returned from Madrid, traveling was all I could talk about. I went to Italy, France, Denmark, Portugal, England, and all of the autonomous regions of Spain (except the Basque Country). I chewed friends’, Romans’, and countrymen’s ears off about it without considering the repercussions. I was homesick for the unknown, and everyone at home needed to know.
On any given day, I’d be talking about how I met Disneyland’s Buzz Lightyear actor in a hostel in Copenhagen, or how I pulled a Lady and the Tramp spaghetti scene in Italy. But I never stopped to think: why does this matter to who I’m talking to?
When I got back, I was inconsiderate of the fact that fewer than 1 in ten American students have studied abroad. That statistic encompasses systematic issues of access, many of which leave potential students unable to go abroad or to attend college at all. I never stopped during my tirades to consider my audience and whether sharing my experiences would be meaningful to a particular person.
So how do you express your abroad experiences in useful doses and in a way that’s not isolating? Let’s take a look at the professional and personal spheres.
Don’t brag: the personal sphere
Your experiences have probably made you a better person, but don’t brag about them. It’s great to reminisce with friends who went through the abroad experience with you, but there’s no need to make anyone outside your circle of abroad friends envy you. Regardless of how hard you did or didn’t work to go abroad, the price of upsetting someone isn’t worth the bragging.
However, your experiences can create tangible links between yourself and others who have had similar experiences. If it makes sense to talk about being abroad, talk about it. If it doesn’t? Well then, no need to. Especially not every time you get a Ryanair flight e-mail (i.e., every day).
Don’t live in the past. You were gone, but now you’re back. Apply what you’ve learned to your new life. Make it meaningful for yourself and for others.
You actually “studied” abroad: the professional sphere
If you’ve been abroad, chances are you did little to no studying– we know. We also realize that you’re likely an alcohol connoisseur of whichever countries you invaded. No need to remind everyone.
But this experience-based learning can come in handy. Compared to the U.S., other countries focus much less on studying as a learning method than the U.S. does anyway; I experienced this firsthand in Spain. That’s all the more reason to explain to potential employers what you learned abroad and how you learned it. Remember: even if you drank your way through foreign lands, you still learned something about the people and their cultures.
Speaking of cultures– (Cultures? Fermentation? Grapes? Wine? What?)– the ability to communicate doesn’t stop at sharing stories. You learned how to adapt to foreign methods of communication. Market your expanded worldview as a multicultural leadership trait; after all everyone has access to that experience.
With that, you should remind yourself that you are fortunate to have had those experiences. You are an asset to the professional globalized world, but you’re still human– just like everyone else who hasn’t studied abroad.
Consider your audience
If you had to listen to your stories over and over, would you want to? Probably not. Neither would your friends. Nobody will remember your breathtaking trip up the Eiffel Tower or the cute British person you flirted with at the best pub in England. But they will remember to avoid you because you’re a boring storyteller.
So who can you talk to? It’s good to reminisce with those who studied abroad with you, but even that has limits. I’ve found that it’s more fruitful if you keep to the internet about it. Here are some ideas:
- Start a blog. Share your experiences with others who want to go abroad, or who have been abroad.
- Get others online excited about travel. Post pictures, stories, quotes, what have you– it’ll infect strangers with the wanderlust bug. Then you can all suffer together.
- Mentor students who plan to go abroad. Set up a site or blog where you can interact with them. Give them tips, tricks, and most importantly: a packing list. You know you Googled that list yourself. Make them a better one.
- Make a Pinterest board.
The internet is a vast expanse of searching. And that’s exactly it: target the audience who is searching for your stories, not those who couldn’t care less.
The power of stories
Regardless of my pessimism, stories are meant to be shared; keeping your story to yourself is giving up your right to a fundamental power which exists in all cultures. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains the dangers of having only one story in her TED talk. My concern with telling stories, though, is knowing who to tell them to.
I wasted most of my time blabbing about silly shenanigans. But the stories that mean the most, the stories that settle in other’s memories and make a home there, are the ones that have impact. So if it’s meaningful, keep telling your story– but remember to emphasize the moral. You never know who will benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.
Regardless of how you perceive your own message, there is a distinction between those who are interested and those who are not. Pay attention even if you’re the one speaking.
Enhance yourself, don’t define yourself
Studying abroad fosters fundamental change, but why does everyone have to know? You can express your experiences in a way that interests your friends and professional acquaintances without isolating them. Use those stories to enhance yourself, not to define yourself. And most of all, make it worthwhile for those who take the time to listen.