Keys to Career Success: Cultural Understanding & Intercultural Competence

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When you study abroad, your location isn’t the only thing that changes. Maybe study abroad will change your future career path. Maybe it’ll change your perspective on another culture. Maybe it’ll change how you approach challenges and uncertainty.

The changes you may experience while you are abroad are not just short term. Many benefits of study abroad have a lasting impact on your life, and your career, once you return home. One of the best ways to make the most of your study abroad experience is to begin reflecting now. Take the time to think about how your cultural experience could impact your professional development. This will undoubtedly influence the way you approach your study abroad experience, and help you translate your experience into your interviews, cover letters, and résumé. Start by reflecting on what cultural understanding and intercultural competency mean and how it plays a part in the contemporary workplace.

Defining Cultural Understanding

When you actively try to understand someone fully, including their cultural background, beliefs, and values, you are engaging in cultural understanding.  Studying abroad is an effective avenue to cultivating cultural understanding – more than 90% of study abroad alumni feel they develop this skill during their experience abroad. As you build your cultural understanding, you’re on your way towards achieving intercultural competence.

What Intercultural Competence Means

Intercultural competence requires work beyond observing cultural diversity, language, or dialogue that is different from your own. It requires you to analyze, interpret, and respond with appropriate communication or behavior. Quality study abroad programs will integrate intercultural competency training into coursework, orientation, field trips, or other parts of the program to help students develop this skill.

Tokyo students posing in front of large globe

Why Employers Want You to Have These Skills

Cultural understanding and intercultural competence are all about communication. Take a look at any list of what employers look for, and you will find communication somewhere in the top five.1 Regardless of field. Knowing how to understand your audience and communicate verbally and non-verbally is vital in all academic disciplines or career fields.

However, intercultural competency goes beyond communication and includes growth in other important areas.

  • To understand a culture different from your own, you must think critically.
  • You must work hard to deduce the nuances of explicit and implicit rules and norms.
  • You must learn to collaborate with people different from yourself.

In addition to communication, critical thinking, hard work, and collaboration are also on that list of top job skills sought by employers. When you develop intercultural competence while studying abroad, you are building out a whole toolbox of skills employers are looking for in job candidates.

Employers are looking for ways to differentiate candidates in a competitive job market. Having the credential of an undergraduate degree might get you a foot in the door, but developing and articulating key “soft” skills is essential to moving from job candidate to hired employee. When you study abroad, do yourself a favor – reflect on how your experience can help you develop these skills. Take advantage of course activities that grow your cultural understanding in order to build intercultural competency. Think hard, and work hard to develop your toolbox of skills. In the long run, your career will thank you.


1.  NACE: Employers Rate Competencies, Student’s Career Readiness

Carrie CunninghamCarrie Cunningham, Director of Institutional Research

Carrie Rackers Cunningham is the Director of Institutional Research at IES Abroad. Carrie has dedicated her career to advancing educational opportunities, beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer then moving on to the world of undergraduate admissions before finally transitioning into education abroad. In her decade of work at IES Abroad, Carrie has worked with almost all IES Abroad constituents - advising students preparing to go abroad; serving as the liaison to university partners; developing customized programs with faculty; and implementing assessment procedures and standards for academic programs. This unique blend of experiences allows Carrie to bring a practical lens to the research efforts she leads.

Carrie’s work has been published in the series Comparative Histories of Education, PIE News, and she has presented at the annual conferences of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and IES Abroad. Carrie earned a MA in Comparative International Education from Loyola University Chicago, where she was awarded Thesis of the Year for outstanding scholarship, and a BA in Business Administration and Marketing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She currently sits on the Data Committee for the Forum of Education Abroad.

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