Peter studied abroad with ISEP at Örebro University in 1998. We first learned about his story through the ISEP Alumni and Friends LinkedIn group. Peter, who now works for Google, asserts that his time in Sweden had a profound impact on his confidence and communication skills. We talked with him to learn more about how his international experiences led to positive outcomes in his professional life.
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I grew up in a medium-sized town in the southeastern part of the U.S., and as a consequence I felt that its environment afforded only a limited worldview. In high school I also had several friends who were exchange students from abroad. I spent a lot of time in their company, exchanging perspectives and talking about the nuances of the English language and I fancied myself in their shoes.
I did my first academic year in high school in Halmstad, Sweden (1995-1996) via Rotary International. Then when I got to college, I decided I wanted to study abroad again.
I chose to return to Sweden on a full-year ISEP Exchange program at Örebro University.
Did you get to travel much during your study abroad year?
I traveled to Finland, Norway and Denmark, and then France at the conclusion of my exchange year. The ability to facilitate additional international travel was not a primary motivation for me, rather I wanted to continue language study and cultural immersion.
In contrast to some of my peers, I ended up doing a lot of shorter excursions to smaller towns and cities, where you can often find the more interesting things that reflect actual national character.
What were some of the benefits of studying abroad that you enjoyed most?
There are several key points that I think are essential about my study abroad experience. I’m going to both answer your question and intersperse it with some strong advice:
The challenge of learning a new language: One of the enormous benefits and joys of study abroad is being someplace where you DO NOT speak the language. You will have many challenging experiences and the process of attempting to acquire a second language will, surprisingly, dramatically improve your communication skills in your native language. Idioms are a really amusing and concrete example of this. For instance, in Swedish they say “köp inte grisen i säcken” e.g. “don’t buy the pig in the bag.” That sounds very humorous and unintuitive until you learn that it means “don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.” Stumbling through these things is both amusing and frustrating. When you learn to overcome those challenges it is one of the most incredible character and confidence building experiences imaginable.
Re-evaluating cultural preconceptions: Cultural norms and values are obviously different from one place to the next in a way you can’t exactly anticipate. People around the world are all trying to understand and answer the same basic life questions and they all go about answering them in a way you didn’t imagine or anticipate. This will also do a lot to challenge your presumptions about your own native country.
Making strong friendships: The incredible memories, friends and personal relationships you will establish. Many of the people I’ve met nearly 20 years ago, I still keep in touch with. I feel like I’ll continue to stay in contact with them for as long as I can. My fiancée and I are traveling to Norway and Sweden this summer and we will no doubt cross paths with some old friends of mine, which is a great joy.
What do you currently do at Google?
Presently I’m working at Google on Google Voice (telephony) features in consumer facing Android apps. But I spent 8-10 years prior to this doing back-end infrastructure and “big data” type projects. Technology is awesome and there are so many fantastic career opportunities in this field!
How do you think your international experience translated into real world skills?
Foremost, I think the confidence and communication skills I further developed led me to be more forthcoming and ambitious in academic and career pursuits. While still in university, I was able to land a paid internship in NYC just by writing well-articulated letters to some label bosses and calling them up.
In retrospect, maybe I should have been intimidated…but after you’ve had to walk to the post office and stumble through a phrase book to buy postage on your second day in your host country, these types of encounters seem borderline trivial.
Oftentimes I found that opportunities were afforded to me just by asking for them. After a while it becomes self-reinforcing. I now oftentimes say: “They can’t say ‘yes’ if you don’t ask.”
How was your career path influenced by your year abroad?
I think my international experiences led me to more esoteric pursuits; like the stint I did in the music industry.
One of the very important things that people don’t tell you (or maybe they tell you and you don’t know to listen) is that when you’re attempting to transition to your professional/working life, oftentimes the way you approach potential employers has as much if not more impact on the outcome of your getting hired, than your formal education itself. Having the volition to approach people older and more experienced than you and be willing to initiate contact with them I think is absolutely essential, and studying abroad helps build that.
I also think study abroad has enabled me to be A LOT more intuitive and understanding about my non-U.S. born colleagues, many of whom are from faraway places. I am able to better read body language and facial expressions and understand their language challenges in times of communication ambiguity or difficulty.
Do you have any other tips for students who are thinking of studying abroad?
- Go to a place where you don’t speak the language. Stick it out, and do it for a year (or longer!) if you can. Don’t worry about whether or not the experience “delays” your graduation or if the credits necessarily transpose back to your home institution. It is TIME WELL SPENT, and an experience you cannot easily replicate.
- Once you’re there, resist the comfort you may find in hanging around with other people from your home country or culture. A little bit is fine in certain times of need, but I encourage you to limit it. If anyone wants to talk about Sweden, study abroad, opportunities in tech, etc. I am happy to share my experience. Drop me a line!
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