What a semester studying overseas taught me

What a semester studying overseas taught me

When you take a semester exchange, one of the first things you’ll notice is what’s different. New cultural etiquette, diverse languages and processes that don’t quite make sense can quickly shake up your sense of what’s normal.

Adjusting to change isn’t always easy. But in the fast-moving world of work, being adaptable gives you a career advantage. Just as companies change their direction, structure and culture to stay competitive, so your ability to adapt to different work routines, processes and perspectives makes you a competitive employee.

La Trobe’s Claudia Rush (Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws) and Grayce Baxter (Bachelor of Arts/Master of Teaching Secondary) share what they learned about adapting to a semester overseas – and why they’re more career ready than ever.

Firsthand experience beats reading textbooks

Keen to study law in a global financial hub, Claudia took a semester exchange to Hong Kong. And 2,589 kilometres away, Grayce spent a semester in Singapore to brush up on modern history.

Both found that studying overseas brought their subjects to life in a way that learning from textbooks couldn’t.

For Claudia, studying human rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong coincided with elections for a new head of government. This meant she was able to see the impacts of law on citizens firsthand.

“My subjects related directly to the political situation – whether Hong Kong was going to become more democratic, or lean toward the People’s Republic of China,” Claudia says.

“It was turning in favour of China and that was really interesting, to be in the community of people when they were feeling like their rights were being infringed upon.”

La Trobe student Claudia Rush spent a semester exchange in Hong Kong. Image credit: Claudia Rush.

As a history teacher in training, Grayce says learning in situ gave vital context to her knowledge.

“So when I teach kids, I’ve actually been there, I’ve experienced it, which is so different to reading a textbook,” Grayce says.

“One of my passions is modern history and that’s such a huge part of the curriculum in high school. Knowing the history of places close to Australia is really important.”

Expanding her knowledge of south-east Asian history means Grayce can offer students different ways to think about the themes of war.

“On teaching placement, students were comparing the text The Crucible, which is about the Salem witch hunts, to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. Using my knowledge from the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Singapore’s involvement in the Second World War, I could say, ‘You can think about it from this perspective as well’.”

Cultural intelligence gives you a career edge

Claudia and Grayce returned to Australia with a culturally agile mindset, ready for roles in diverse workplaces. Studying overseas taught them respect for cultures other than their own, and gave them skills in working with people from vastly different backgrounds. This cultural intelligence is a soft skill employers want.

“Going into any work environment, you’ll constantly be surrounded by people who are different from you. Being able to work together effectively regardless of cultural backgrounds or language barriers is an amazing skill to develop,” Claudia says.

Claudia’s semester exchange taught her to overcome emotional reactions to different behaviours. She says she gained insight into how ingrained ‘our ideas of appropriate mannerisms are’.

“When you work with people so different from you, you get perspectives you don’t even think about. It’s interesting to see how different people’s life experience influences the way they see and solve a problem.”

Grayce says that exposure to cultural differences has helped her to be a more inclusive teacher.

“Being able to identify with different cultures is such a significant thing, especially when we’re bringing diversity into classroom,” she says.

La Trobe’s Grayce Baxter visited neighbouring countries during her semester exchange. Image credit: Grayce Baxter.

Exposure to new opinions opens your mind

If you’re the kind of person who’s steadfast in your opinions, spending a semester overseas can encourage personal attributes like tolerance and empathy.

“You’re surrounded by people who have different opinions to you. You realise that although some things might be true within your own community, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way. There are many right ways,” says Claudia.

Claudia says studying in Hong Kong made her a better listener and more open to changing her views. Grayce also felt more receptive towards different cultures.

“It makes you realise that you don’t know everything. We can be close minded to a lot of things that are going on outside the western world.”

If you love to travel, don’t wait ‘til you’ve finished your degree. As Grayce advises, there’s no better time see the world.

“When you get into work the opportunity mightn’t be there anymore. While you’re at uni you’re learning and growing, you’re becoming a person ready for your future career. It’s definitely the time to go.”

Get credit towards your degree with a semester overseas through La Trobe University’s Exchange Program. You can choose from more than 150 partner universities in over 40 countries – all without paying additional tuition fees.

Can’t choose between your favourite subjects? Study a double degree like Claudia and Grayce and you’ll graduate with two specialities. Explore La Trobe’s full range of double degrees.