Madrid to Shanghai: How Study Abroad Impacted my Career

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GV alumna, Elaine Kilgore shares how her experiences in Spain and China impacted her career

On behalf of Captain Baker and the entire crew, welcome aboard American Airlines flight 392, non-stop service from Chicago to Madrid.” Holy crap, I’m going, I’m finally going to Spain! The months of research and planning are finally paying off. This is a great idea. Isn’t it? I’ve been studying Spanish for years, but what if I don’t understand their dialect? Do Spaniards even like Americans? I don’t know anyone in Spain. What am I doing?

This is what goes through your mind when you study abroad for the first time. Excitement with a healthy dose of fear. Growing up, I barely even travelled to Canada, but in 2011, the summer after my junior year, I left the continent. I had accepted an internship with a with a company in Madrid that connected private English tutors with Spaniards. I hopped on a plane with two other girls from GVSU, whom I barely knew.

My host “family” was group of three women who did not speak English. This was intimidating at first, but it forced me to practice and improve my Spanish. They were kind, inviting, and understanding of the language barrier. They taught me how to cook a couple of their favorite dishes and made sure I felt welcome coming to them for anything. If I felt homesick, I could skype my family, boyfriend, and my cat and dog. As time went on, I found myself less and less depending on the skype conversations, and more and more interested in planning my next adventure. I could take a day trip to Toledo, Spain, try new food and tour an ancient city, and later that night still check in with my cat in America. On my last day in Spain, I found myself mourning leaving the town, roommates, and new friends I had made. Three months was more than enough time to fall in love with a country, it’s people, and the language.

My second chance to study abroad came in the summer of 2012, when I applied for a program called Marketing in China. They accepted twelve students from GVSU, MSU, and SVSU, myself included. And I didn’t even know Chinese! One day we met with the president of Amway China, and the next we were working our calves out on the Great Wall and learning how to make dumplings. We travelled throughout the region, hitting cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an, and Hong Kong.

Studying abroad isn’t strictly business, and it isn’t a vacation. I had the opportunity to experience the sights, food, and people that the world has to offer, and I did real work with real world benefits. In September of 2014, two years after I graduated, I got a job teaching English in Shanghai, China at an English language training center for 5-12 year olds. My experiences studying abroad have had a direct impact on what I’m doing now. And I still barely know Chinese.

No matter what field you end up working in, even if doesn’t seem very ‘international,’ employers like to see that you’re adaptable and willing to take risks. Spending any amount of time living and studying abroad changes a person. I’m not saying that you come back completely different, equipped to spread world peace with your new cultural understandings and fluent language skills, but you do come back more empathetic, more independent, and a lot more understanding of other cultures. International experience says “I’m willing to take risks and adapt to new situations. I’m able to go out on a limb to see the world from a different perspective.” Hiring managers like that (wink wink).

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