I remember the first time I left the United States. I was about eight years old, visiting family in El Paso, Texas. During the trip, we traveled to nearby Juarez, Mexico, to visit the market.
Everything about the market was different from any previous shopping experience I’d ever had. It was an open-air market with a dirt floor, and it was packed to the brim with booths. Vendors negotiated their prices, and children peddled wares. I saw goods for sale that were new to me, like a Mexican soft drink I’d never heard of or ever tasted. It gave me a new appreciation for—and curiosity about—other cultures.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that trip and the many things I saw and experienced that were different from my everyday life. That trip is a significant reason why, to this day, I have an itch to travel and an interest in other cultures.
In the work I do now on a college campus, I see students return from study abroad trips with similar wonder in their eyes. It’s amazing to witness the impact that a change in environment can make in a person’s life and career.
Students come back with a greater understanding of the intricacies of conducting business abroad, which makes them more competitive when applying to companies that do international work. They bring new perspectives and ideas to their careers and see opportunities they may not have seen otherwise.
Even if you’re not a student, travel can significantly benefit your career—here’s how.
1. It Might Open Doors You Aren’t Expecting
Consider Scott Harrison, who actually paid to work with a medical mission team in West Africa when he grew tired of his (very successful) career in club promotions. His experience left him bursting with passion to improve lives in the impoverished areas he visited.
Today, he’s the founder and CEO of charity: water, a highly visible and highly successful organization that provides access to clean water all over the world. But that may not have happened if Harrison hadn’t set foot on that ship bound for Liberia.
Leaving your comfort zone can provide inspiration, awareness, and ideas you wouldn’t likely consider if you continued following the same routine in the same place, day after day.
Not every person who travels abroad will come home and found a wildly successful organization, of course. But you may think of new ways to approach old problems, make a new business contact, or learn about a new career path that wasn’t previously on your radar.
2. It Can Help You Learn a Language
Immersion in a new city or culture is an almost surefire way to pick up a language. There are other ways to learn a language—for example, traditional classes or online-based resources like Rosetta Stone or Mango Languages—but the best, most effective way to become proficient in a new language is to put yourself in a situation in which you have to use it consistently in your day-to-day interactions.
Understandably, the thought of simply dropping into a foreign country and hoping you’ll develop the language skills to survive may be intimidating. To ease the apprehension, look for opportunities that will provide a little more structure and support in your immersion experience. For example, consider taking a study-abroad class through a local university or traveling with a group that will be providing a service in the country you want to visit.
But what does learning a new language have to do with your career?
Consider this: The United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a 46% increase in employment of interpreters and translators by 2022. That means the demand for people who can communicate in multiple languages is—and will continue to be—very high.
But if you’re not specifically interested in working as a translator, language skills can still benefit your career. For example, if you can speak more than one language, you can save your company from having to hire a translator for global meetings.
And, in general, as technology allows organizations to interact with others across the globe, language will become increasingly important to effectively collaborate and develop partnerships.
3. It Can Increase Your Cultural Competency
One branch of a large, global corporation is located in the relatively small community (i.e., the population is about 19,000) where I live. Employees at that branch have collaborated with colleagues in Singapore, Scotland, Nigeria, Brazil, and Dubai.
Many of the people who work at this company weren’t necessarily looking for an international experience when they found employment there, but they have to understand their position in a global corporation to be effective.
For example, I once watched a family member return to her office at this company at 9 PM, after being home from her workday for several hours. When I asked what in the world she was doing, she explained that she’d forgotten to enter some critical data in the system, and the Nigeria team would be arriving for their workday in a few hours and needed that information to complete their part of the work. Leaving it for the next day just wasn’t an option because it impacted the processes of an entire plant overseas.
Employees at the local plant also have to be mindful of customs and holidays at other locations that may impact the work schedule or their ability to reach their colleagues in those locations, as well as communicating our local holidays to their counterparts worldwide who might not know that the local office will be closed.
In an increasingly globalized society, learning to accept and appreciate cultural differences is a good move for your career. You certainly don’t have to leave the country to increase your comfort when interacting with people of different races or cultures, but immersing yourself in another culture can create an unparalleled awareness and understanding of people who are different than you.
With that kind of understanding, when you have to talk to a colleague in Singapore to figure out why something has gone awry with an assignment, you’ll be less stressed about the interaction and less likely to feel barriers to communication—which means you’ll be more likely to easily reach a solution. Everyone wins.
Traveling abroad can be a pricey investment, but it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable barrier. Look for scholarships if you’re traveling with a class, or read travel websites and blogs to learn how to cut expenses while you’re abroad. It’s worth it: This is an investment that can change your world—and your career.