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Culture shock: A goal for the globally competent

Spring is the season for students and young professionals to be making plans. The coming summer is a good time to jump on internships and work opportunities or to get extra credit through summer academic programs. High school and college seniors in particular will look beyond graduation dates, considering options for employment and/or continuing education.

Many in this situation may already be considering going abroad. I would like to take that idea a step further and make the case for going “off the map.” But first, some context.

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Despite recent discourse that would suggest otherwise, it is still safe to bet on deepening global inter-connectivity. Global commerce, mobility and interdependence will continue to trend upward. It is then no wonder why both educators and businesses are so high on concepts like “global competency” and “international savvy.” The Institute for the Future, a U.S.-based think tank, has identified “cross-cultural competency” as one of the 10 most important skills for the future workforce. A QS Global Employer Survey Report seems to support this projection, as it found 60 percent of employers around the world give added value to applicants with international experience, and more than 80 percent said they actively seek out applicants who had studied abroad.

Now, studying and working abroad is not a novel concept. According to the Institute for International Education, over 325,000 American students went abroad in the 2015-16 academic year. But IIE also found that over 40 percent of those students went to one of only five European countries.

A semester in Melbourne, a summer in Seville or an internship in London are surely all great experiences. But those paths are crowded, competitive and expensive. If the idea is to gain unique experience, and ultimately stand out to future employers or advanced academic programs, one should take a wider — and longer — view.

While much is said about the global ascendance of China and India, less is said about South East Asia. Malaysia is a top destination in the region due to its bustling cities, natural beauty and low cost of living. The 2018 edition of QS World University Rankings placed University of Malaya at 114, several spots ahead of my alma mater, University of Maryland College Park (No. 129). Tuition at University of Malaya is as low as $3,000 per year for some subjects. Meanwhile, young professionals or those looking for internships might explore Indonesia, slated to be the world’s fifth largest economy by 2030. And of course Singapore, the futuristic city-state nestled between the two aforementioned countries, is home to truly world-class universities and one of the world’s most advanced economies.

South and Central America also run under the radar as potential destinations for young Americans. Brazil and Mexico are projected to be the eighth and ninth largest global economies by 2030, respectively. The U.S. will benefit from a fresh corps of well-equipped minds, eager and able to develop strong relations not only with our neighbors to the south, but also the 60 million-strong Latino community in the U.S. today. University of Buenos Aires in Argentina and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (incidentally North America’s oldest college) should be on the short-list of any student looking to explore U.S.-Latin America policy and business.

There are, of course, real obstacles to pursuing these kinds of opportunities. Costs, for one, add up. But many of these “lesser known” schools, in an effort to sweeten the pot for foreign talent, offer generous scholarships for enrollment in degree-seeking programs. For those who would prefer a shorter-term exchange, a quick Google search returns dozens of grant and scholarship opportunities.

Then there are the cultural barriers. The fact is, culture shock is real. Life in another country, especially in a different language landscape, is not easy — at least not initially. But it is for precisely this reason that going off the beaten path is such an unparalleled experience. Your skin will grow thick and your mind will expand in ways that are hard to describe. You will feel “globally competent.”

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“The world is changing.” The truth of this statement is as perennial as the grass. But by going away, students and young professionals can learn first-hand exactly how the world is changing, and take advantage of opportunities that will inevitably arise.

John Robertson lives in China’s southwest city of Chengdu, where he works in US-China engagement and exchange. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.