For anyone who has ever returned from long-term travel, the most dreaded question to answer is, “what’s next?” For many travelers, the future is unknown, and the thought of finding a job can be daunting and downright scary. What do you do if you haven’t worked in several years? How do you turn volunteer experiences into professional experiences? How can studying abroad be applicable in the working world? When you think about it more, the real question to ask isn’t “what’s next,” but rather, “what can I gain from my travels?”
Ten years ago, I found myself back in the United States after living abroad for more than two years. I had just completed a two-year service in the Peace Corps, serving as a health volunteer in the country of Togo. Right after completing my service, I did a five week tour of Southeast Asia, and another five weeks road tripping around the United States. By the time I returned to my hometown, I was energized from my travels and ready to take on the next chapter in my life.
I foolishly thought that my two years of working on grassroots-level community development projects would be enough to impress potential employers, but I thought wrong. As interesting as I thought my experiences were, I was having a hard time finding a job...especially the kind of job that I wanted. At the time, I thought that what I needed was more experience, but looking back, I realize that wasn’t quite my issue. Rather, it was more about how I was presenting my experiences to potential employers.
Packaging Travel Experience in a Marketable Way
When we think of travel, we often think of it as something fun and frivolous. We see it as a youthful excursion, or a chance to escape the real world. But anyone who has traveled seriously, or for an extended period of time, knows that travel is far from frivolous. There are hard lessons and skills that travelers learn while being abroad, and many of these skills can actually apply to the workplace. The novice traveler will write these skills off as simply character building, but the expert traveler knows how to turn them into assets that will make them competitive in the job market.
If you’ve just recently returned from spending time abroad, and are looking for ways to get back into the job market, here are five ways to turn your travels into marketable job skills.
1. Focus on cross-cultural experiences
The job market these days is very much globally-focused. For job seekers looking for positions in the international development field, cross-cultural skills are essential, especially when dealing with people and projects across various countries. Employers want to see candidates who have an understanding of the local context, and who can communicate with people from different cultures. I have often used examples from my travels in interviews with potential employers.
During my time in West Africa, I found that my understanding of situations was quite different from my local counterparts, and it really hindered me from getting the results I wanted from my projects. It wasn’t until I had spent over a year and a half in Togo did I really begin to understand how the Togolese saw the world. At that point, my projects became easier to implement, and working with local community groups became much smoother.
If you’ve spent substantial time abroad, showcase your understanding of these cultures in your resume. Did you work with community groups on a project? Describe how many people you worked with, and what kind of work you did. Being able to quantify your cross-cultural experiences will make you a much more competitive candidate for jobs, and make you more interesting to future employers.
2. Highlight your language skills
When you’re looking to break into an international career, strong language skills are a must. And if you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in a non-English speaking country, then you already have a leg up against the competition.
Highlight your language skills in your resume, and specify to what level and length of time you can speak that language. My foreign language skills are mostly in French, due to the time I spent in West Africa, and I have had several interviews where my interviewer and I started conversing in French because they noticed it on my resume. These types of conversations help to break the ice during an interview, but they also help to showcase your language skills.
While romance languages like French and Spanish are always useful to know, knowledge in languages such as Chinese, Arabic, or Thai can give you a strong edge, as international development organizations often work in countries that speak these languages. If your language skills are more varied and less deep, focus instead on your ability to pick up new languages. You can still impress your interviewers with some of the different phrases you’ve learned from your travels.
3. Showcase your ability to think on your feet
As many travelers know, the act of travel requires a certain amount of flexibility. You never know whether you will be faced with a canceled flight, an unexpected detour, or even an unfortunate mishap. Seasoned travelers know how to think on their feet and deal with whatever situation they are faced with. The fast-paced work environment of many international development organizations lends itself to that type of flexibility as well. Employers prefer to hire people who are adaptable to different situations, and they also tend to value people who can learn independently.
In one interview, I shared how spending time in a rural village really helped me understand the role that the seasons can play in something as simple as scheduling meetings. During the rainy seasons, I explained, it was next to impossible to get anyone to show up on time to a meeting! I often had to be flexible in my scheduling, and be willing to adapt my work to the situation. My interviewer nodded with a knowing grin, and I knew that I had said something that impressed them. If you’ve ever had a travel experience where you’ve had to be flexible or adaptable, mention this in your interview. Explaining how you managed to overcome a particular situation will show employers that you are proactive and able to find solutions to difficult problems.
4. Use your travel experiences as skill-building opportunities
Long-term travel forces you to deal with all sorts of situations. We often see them as life lessons, but they can also be skill-building opportunities. Dealing with surly border officials or pushy crafts sellers teaches you negotiation skills. Traveling on a budget teaches you how to utilize limited resources. Planning and executing a long-term around the world trip teaches you valuable lessons in project management and budget management.
When talking about your travel experiences, think about the skills you have gained from that experience that could be applicable to a job. These days when I travel, I make elaborate spreadsheets to help me budget for my trip, maintain a timeline, and track my expenses along the way. I have occasionally mentioned this in my job interviews as a light-hearted way to showcase my Excel and budget management skills.
5. Promote your ability to bring a global perspective
One of the most important job skills that any traveler can bring to a company is a global perspective. Traveling extensively allows you to become keenly aware of how your life fits into a global context, and this insight is invaluable to companies who are globally-minded as well.
Employers are always looking for candidates who can see the big picture. If you’ve spent time volunteering abroad, indicate how your trip helped you better understand poverty around the world. If you studied abroad, explain how your studies helped you gain insight into how countries relate to one another. Or if you traveled from one country to another, showcase how your nomadic lifestyle helped you see the universalities across the different cultures.
I still include a few bullet points from my Peace Corps experience on my resume, even though it has been ten years since I returned from West Africa. In the international development industry, I know that employers prefer candidates who have had experiences abroad, and those two years on my resume can help give me an advantage over other candidates who have had primarily domestic experiences.
Despite what you may think, your travel experiences do not have to be separate from your career. On the contrary, they can be quite helpful in landing you that next job. Ten years ago, I was ill-equipped to use my travel experiences to help me get a job, because I failed to see how they could be marketable job skills. Looking back, I realized that all I needed to do was look at my experiences from a different lens.
If you’re just coming back from long-term travel, don’t make the same mistake I did. Start thinking about how your travel experiences can be assets to helping you get your next job. Who knows, you might just land your dream job.
About the Author: Astrid Vinje is a Project Administrator for a global health organization and has an MA in International Development Studies. She has a decade of experience working in the global health field, from organizing small grassroots projects in West Africa to providing financial and administrative oversight for global projects at international nonprofits. She also has a passion for travel and enjoys exploring the world with her husband and children. You can read about her travel experiences on her blog, The Wandering Daughter.