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Studying Abroad Helps Students Think Globally

IT students gather in front of the Google European Headquarters in Ireland

Studying Abroad Helps Students Think Globally

Programs Cultivate Vital Workplace Skills

Jun 2, 2016

By Jessica Thiel,
Student Intern, Professional Communications Program


Forget about the stereotypical college spring break. In March 2016, a group of Fox Valley Technical College students passed up partying in favor of a study-abroad opportunity in Dublin that afforded them access to top technology companies.

Imagine getting an inside look at tech giants like Google and Dropbox. Companies like this don’t exactly have a reputation for transparency.

In the United States, gaining entry into companies of this caliber is difficult, says Steve Ebben, department chair of FVTC’s Information Technology department. In Dublin, however, it’s much easier to get access, said Ebben, who led the group of students in March.

Dublin has established itself as the Silicon Valley of Europe, Ebben says. Juggernauts like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few, have offices in the city.

To students, the opportunity to work for prestigious companies like Facebook or Google can seem like a proposition of mythical proportions, according to Ebben. The 10-day trip helped show students that they can attain these goals.

The 14 software and network students who went on the trip got a taste of both the lifestyle and demands facing people who work in the IT industry. “When else would they ever be able to do this?” Ebben said.

Students, who also received college credit for the experience, witnessed some amazing perks of working for a prestigious company. This can be a heady experience, but they were also encouraged to examine the costs that come along with the benefits, according to Ebben.

This glimpse into the real world of working in IT is invaluable, Ebben says. He explains that it’s important for IT students to understand what it feels like to work with someone working in a time zone six hours away, as they will need to do this in the workforce.

Student Carly Burns, a 20-year-old IT network systems administration student who traveled abroad for the first time on the Dublin trip, still bubbles with excitement about all she experienced. “This experience has taught me how to adapt with other cultures, build confidence, and think critically,” Burns said.

These skills are vital and highly prized, notes Ebben, who said employers seek new hires with these kinds of experiences. Aaron Gorenc, FVTC’s coordinator of global education, echoes this sentiment. When people think of study-abroad opportunities, they don’t necessarily associate that experience with a two-year college, Gorenc acknowledges, but he’s on a mission to change that.

“Employers are asking us to have internationally engaged students,” he said.

When Gorenc talks to employers, they express no worries about the technical skills of FVTC graduates, he said. They do, however, increasingly ask for students to develop soft skills like effective communication and awareness of other cultures.

Studying abroad is a natural fit for honing those skills and cultivating that awareness, Gorenc stresses.

While studying abroad may seem both costly and daunting, Gorenc stresses that financial aid is available as well as many scholarships and government grants. In addition, students who participate in study-abroad programs can reap dividends from the experience.

Study abroad program are integrated into a student’s curriculum, Gorenc explains, and they fulfill course requirements. The outcomes are the same as those of courses taken on campus. At the same time, though, students gain unique insights.

Gorenc points to the Spanish immersion program, which places students in language programs in Costa Rica and Spain, as an example of this. When participating in the program, students fully engage in the Spanish language. Students who are at advanced beginner level or higher can gain tremendous ground in their language skills, Gorenc says.

Most programs typically last eight to 14 days and include learning and cultural experiences, and yes, some time for fun. Network Specialist student Charles Ehrenberg, 38, recounts the unforgettable time he had celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Ireland. At the same time, he says he learned about the history of the country and tensions between Northern Ireland and the UK. 

Other trips combine service and learning. Students from the Nursing and Medical Assistant programs travel to Jamaica twice a year to provide clinical care and educate Jamaican citizens about topics like nutrition and exercise. In 2017, the program will expand to include students from other health-related programs like Occupational Therapy Assistant and Dental Hygienist.

Gorenc envisions all kinds of potential in the area of service. Most manufacturing companies in the area are international, he said. What could be better than gaining experience abroad while helping others before joining the workforce? Picture electronics or welding students helping improve the infrastructure in African nations.

No matter the program, it’s clear that students who study abroad set themselves apart, Gorenc said. In the end, it all comes down to preparing for the future.

“Employees need to be globally aware,” Gorenc said.