Study abroad experiences lead to careers that require an international understanding.
We live in a society that loves to measure things. We are constantly asking for data: How long is the movie? How far is the restaurant? What’s the ROI on this? What’s the cost? Give it to me in a spreadsheet.
But some things in life aren’t easily measured. What, for instance, is the value of a study abroad experience that sparked a passion for foreign policy, provided experiences crucial to graduate school admission essays and eventually led to a job working with the Department of State? How do you measure the worth of a semester abroad that led to further exploration of world cultures and ultimately to a position teaching Japanese studies at a university in Singapore?
While we can’t hold up a yardstick to these experiences, hearing the stories of the people impacted by study abroad helps us to understand the many ways it has permanently impacted the course of their professional lives.
Citizen of the world
“If Central ever set out to make anybody into a ‘citizen of the world,’ I think I would fit that description,” says Chris McMorran ’95. Today, he lives and works in Singapore, but the journey that brought him to the island country started in landlocked Pella. The Greenfield, Iowa, native graduated high school with a class of about 30 students then headed to Central College. “I didn’t really look at many places other than Central,” he says. “I went on a campus tour early in my senior year and fell in love with the campus and the atmosphere.”
While at Central, McMorran, a sociology major, participated in A Cappella Choir, which whisked him on a choir trip to Europe during the summer of his sophomore year. It was his first time abroad, and the experience instilled a desire for more travel. He had the feeling that “I had to get more of this,” he says. During spring term of his junior year, McMorran participated in Central’s China program, led by Don and Maxine Huffman. He then signed up for the Yucatan, Mexico, program during the first term of his senior year. At the time, Don Maxam and wife, Elsie led the program. Right after graduation, McMorran joined former professor of anthropology Steve Ybarrola’s program in the Basque country of Spain.
After college, McMorran remained hooked on international experiences. He took a job as an English teacher in Japan as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, which he continued for three years. At first, the job was mainly a way to experience a new culture. “I went to the JET Program to teach English mostly to satisfy a longing to see more of the world,” he says. But he became fascinated by Japan and by “its image of itself and the image it portrays to the rest of the world.”
After three years, the travel bug bit again and McMorran says he put Japan “on the back burner.” He spent about a year living in London, minus a month-long visit to Mali in West Africa. “I didn’t stop the exploring I learned to do while I was at Central,” he says.
McMorran then decided to continue his studies and started graduate school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2000. He earned his master’s degree in geography then took two years off to research rural depopulation and study Japanese language on a scholarship. He went back for a Ph.D. degree in 2004 and finished in 2008. After working for a couple years in outreach at the University of Colorado, McMorran began teaching at the National University of Singapore in the department of Japanese studies. McMorran’s Ph.D. research focused on domestic tourism in Japan, and the people who work in tourist spaces. His research brought him to rural areas where family-run inns are popular, and McMorran found many stories waiting to be told about the people—mostly women—who end up working at the inns.
“The laborers they hire are often very vulnerable,” he says. “The people that I worked with when I did my research were mostly women who had been divorced or abused or in some way had fled their own home, and the only jobs they could get were in these recreated homes or tourist impressions of what a conservative Japanese home should look like.”
While the jobs provide the women with food, shelter and a salary, they often have nowhere else to go. McMorran says, “I feel like there is a story to be told of the behind-the-scenes, you might call them micro-geographies, of gender and labor that can be revealed in these traditional Japanese inns.”
McMorran’s classes at National University of Singapore tend to be more broad-based, helping students understand Japan in a variety of frameworks, including the country’s environmental history, as well as general classes such as Introduction to Japanese Studies. He also leads a field study course to Japan each year.
Part of the appeal of teaching at the university is the diversity of both students and professors. “I have colleagues from around the world,” McMorran says, citing office neighbors from Germany, Australia, Japan, Singapore, the U.S. and more. He says the students are “ambitious and eager to learn” and that “the interactions I have with colleagues and students are the highlights of the job.” McMorran’s commitment to teaching has been recognized by his university, which has twice presented him with the Annual Teaching Excellence Award. The award goes to about 50 people each year, out of more than 2,300 total faculty members.
In Singapore, McMorran finds an unusual mixture of the amenities of a big city—Singapore has more than 5 million people—and small-town life. For instance, he can walk to work in 15 minutes and enjoys never having to drive in traffic. In fact, he doesn’t drive at all, saying there is no reason to have a car in Singapore because public transportation is so good. He also likes the fact that Singapore provides a convenient hub from which to travel the world—a flight to Australia takes only five hours.
McMorran still has the travel bug and tries to visit one new country every year, continuing his experience of living as a global citizen that began at Central. Today he says he “has no hesitation about living almost anywhere in the world. And I think that has to do with being exposed early to opportunities to study abroad while I was at Central.”
Global career path
Stephanie Heiken ’12 didn’t expect that she could “translate her study abroad experiences into a career,” but the path she’s charted since Central appears full of global possibilities.
The political science and Spanish double major recently completed a master’s degree in foreign policy at American University in Washington, D.C. She is also an adoptions assistant at the U.S. Department of State, working on intercountry adoption issues for contractor Symtech Corporation.
“I knew starting as a political science major at Central that I was interested in foreign policy, especially focused in Latin America. And I knew from my study abroad experiences in Mexico and the Netherlands that I wanted international affairs to be the focus of my career,” Heiken says. Later, graduate study further solidified her career path. “My master’s program developed a strong interest in national security and foreign policy development and implementation,” Heiken says.
Her experiences abroad proved helpful when it came time to apply to graduate programs. “Study abroad helped me enter grad school,” Heiken says. “The program that I recently completed is highly competitive, and study abroad helped me gain relevant experiences and subject matter understanding to discuss in my application.”
While a Central student, Heiken studied in the Washington Center program in D.C. in fall 2010, in the Merida, Yucatan, program during spring 2010, and in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 2012.
“I had great advisors in Jim Zaffiro, professor of political science, and Eric Ladner, associate professor of Spanish, who encouraged me. I took a lot of initiative but Central faculty were very supportive and helped me find a way to make it all happen,” Heiken recalls. “I didn’t know then that I could make study abroad into a career path.”
While on the Yucatan program, Heiken was encouraged by director Valerie Grimsley to consider a career in the Foreign Service with the Department of State. It was also in Mexico that Heiken became interested in international development and women’s issues. She says, “I interned with a women’s fair trade co-op in a small village outside of Merida, where I gained an understanding of the relative position of women in rural Mexico for the first time.”
Heiken’s interest in human rights was further fostered in Leiden, where she took a course in human rights, specifically the effect of conflict on children.
“I chose Leiden because it was advertised as a political science program. It was out of my comfort zone to study in Western Europe because most of my academic background was in Latin America,” Heiken says. “In Leiden you live in an international student dorm that is like a mini-U.N., with fellow students from Ireland, France, Belgium, Peru, China and other countries. There were also lots of opportunities to volunteer and get involved in the local culture.” One of her favorite assignments for the program was to explore a new city in the Netherlands and report on the experience to the class.
During her Washington Center semester, Heiken interned at Peace Corps Headquarters and saw first-hand how the federal government worked. “It was the perfect opportunity for someone interested in international affairs to gain real-world experience. I not only had the opportunity to intern with a federal government agency and take a course on international development, but I spent a semester with a cohort of similarly motivated individuals who continue today to shape my understanding of the world and the opportunities available for me.”
Heiken anticipates the next stop on her international career trajectory will be a position with the federal government. “I am currently a contractor so my next goal is to get a job with the federal government. I am particularly motivated by security and international policy analysis, so my heart is set on an analyst position with the Department of State, the Department of Defense or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Heiken also plans to take the Foreign Service Officer Test soon.
She says, “I am more passionate about international affairs and serving the federal government as a result of my study abroad and Washington Center experiences.” Each experience proved a stepping stone in a career path that is taking Heiken closer and closer to her dream job.
Connecting to an ideal internship
Experiences abroad act as a springboard for future career plans. Stephen Goethals, a 2014 graduate of Bradley University, recently spent spring semester abroad with Central’s program in Vienna. As a television arts major, Goethals was interested in an internship that would provide experience in his field as well as align with another of his passions: soccer.
Goethals explained to Ruth Verweijen, director of Central’s Vienna program, that he wanted to intern with an Austrian soccer team. She made the connection, giving Goethals contact information for Peter Gretchshammer, the director of the youth academy for SK Rapid Wien, one of Vienna’s two professional soccer teams. After meeting with Gretchshammer and showing him examples of his previous work, Goethals began attending youth team trainings to see how they could be filmed for use in promotional videos.
“After the Easter holiday I brought my camera to the trainings, spoke with the U9 trainers, and started collecting footage,” Goethals says. “After a couple of trainings I formed a general idea of how I wanted the video to be and decided to interview the coaches and kids. My German was really tested here and I really learned so much from it. I then edited the videos at home.”
Through the process of making three videos, Goethals became experienced in molding raw footage into a film with a specific purpose. For instance, for the U15 team, a video featuring the international tournament had multiple objectives.
“When I got there on the first day, Gretchshammer talked to me and cleared up what exactly the new purpose of the video ought to be. The sponsors of the tournament have a contract with Rapid and he wanted the video to include all teams as well as the sponsors of this great event. The final product ended up being snaps of footage from all teams that participated as well as giving credit to the sponsors accordingly,” Goethals says.
The internship has furthered Goethals’ career goals by giving him the opportunity to create videos for a major sporting organization. “I was more or less given total freedom in how those videos turned out,” he says. “I put my skills to use that I learned from getting my degree.”
While he isn’t yet sure exactly what career path he will pursue, Goethals’ internship offered a great background in real-world media production, which is the field in which he hopes to work. “I have recently taken an interest in script writing and I have been looking for jobs and internships in radio because there is more of a focus on writing,” he says.
Goethals considers his internship the most valuable part of his study-abroad experience “because I was able to learn about Europe outside of the classroom,” he says. He encourages other students to seek out opportunities abroad that take them into the day-to-day life of the countries in which they are living.
“Travel, go on tours, learn about the history of other countries as well as the one you’re studying in,” he says.
For Goethals, as well as other study abroad alums, their experiences have paved the way for a future as global citizens. Often, this mindset directly impacted their careers, taking them further than they dreamed was possible.