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Career Connections for YES Abroad Alumni

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By Diana P., YES Abroad 2018-19, Morocco

Last month I participated in a Career Connections conference for U.S. State Department Exchange Alumni in Austin, Texas, the goal of which was to gather 80 Americans who had participated on U.S. government exchange programs with expert career coaches, professionals from diverse fields, and international leaders in order to  build off of and learn how to leverage our international experiences in the professional world.

As an alumna of the NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) and YES Abroad programs, I have noticed a large portion of students on these programs—for high school and gap year participants—intend to study international relations or other liberal arts fields, and it’s easy to feel out of place if this isn’t your field too. So, before arriving at the conference, I set myself a goal to meet people who studied STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in college and have used STEM abroad. As a current engineering student at the University of Illinois, I wanted to meet people further along in their careers who have used a technical field, but with an international focus.

Once there, I immediately met alumni from the Gilman scholarship, Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX), Fulbright the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), NSLI-Y, and YES Abroad among other programs. I met people from all corners of the U.S. who studied fields ranging from theology and linguistics to technology. I met Dustin Wilborn, an alumnus of the CBYX Young Professionals program in Germany, who has since worked as an electrician domestically and most recently traveled with the U.S. State Department overseeing the renovations of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem utilizing his  electrical engineering experience. It was fascinating speaking to him about different safety standards and construction methods since we both have experience in the construction and engineering fields.

I listened to talks from professional career coaches and State Department employees about their career paths. A notable speaker was a Foreign Service Officer who has known she wanted to work in government all her life and told us about working in the U.S. Embassy in London during 9/11, a formative experience in her career.

The speakers had a breadth of experiences and professions I did not foresee. One of the speakers is a leader of the sales and operations team of the South By Southwest (SXSW) Conference and festival in Austin. We heard how he engages international audiences when inviting speakers, presenters, and audience members. Another speaker with a background in international law and computer science works at Microsoft on international contracts, mostly with the Chinese government. Indeed, the knowledge of global markets is not restricted to working at the State Department and it was fascinating to see how every profession in the public and private sector is becoming increasingly globalized and that having international experience is invaluable. 

Though I have always intended to study a STEM field, my NSLI-Y and YES Abroad experiences have motivated me to pursue an internationally-focused career through language learning and cultural immersion as well, and I am seeing how I don’t have to pick one or the other—both are important and relevant. Especially important in understanding this was doing my YES Abroad Capstone project in Morocco, where I researched renewable energy sources with a doctoral candidate at the Mohammed V in my host community of Rabat. I was able to use the language skills I had learned in order to survey Moroccans--in French, Darija, and Modern Standard Arabic in multiple regions of the country about their household energy consumption. 

 Since completing the YES Abroad program, I started college and have even had the opportunity to compete for Department of Defense scholarship to conduct scientific research domestically. (I am currently a semi-finalist!) But after having the opportunity to attend this amazing conference, I could also envision myself working in a variety of fields, say in  an engineering design firm with international clients. Ultimately, meeting people working in a variety of fields was an eye-opening experience—especially as someone with a curiosity about the connections between study abroad and STEM—and one I’m grateful to have had!