Forum stresses career benefits of study abroad

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Japanese students should buck the stay-at-home trend and instead study overseas to gain skills to survive in an ever more globalized and competitive world, experts and former international students said at a recent forum on overseas study in Tokyo.

Those skills include not only languages but also social skills like knowing how to work with people from different backgrounds, being more independent and expressing oneself, they said.

“Study overseas has become a matter of gaining skills that you might not necessarily be able to get at home. Perhaps most prominently, it’s a matter of becoming more competitive,” said Anna Esaki-Smith, editorial director at the British Council in Hong Kong. The council is a U.K. governmental organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations.

“I am sure you are all keenly aware how competitive your world has become,” said Esaki-Smith during the forum, organized by The International Herald Tribune and UBS AG, Tokyo Branch, in Roppongi last week.

She explained that competition is intensifying because there are more people around the globe who can afford an education and more students are studying overseas.

To get a job and distinguish themselves from others, people need to have a competitive edge, or “21st century skills,” that include understanding different perspectives, working with people from other countries and expressing one’s ideas, said Esaki-Smith, adding that such skills can be gained by studying overseas.

Azusa Tanaka, head of education at the British Council in Japan, agreed with Esaki-Smith that the current globalized society demands that people have skills to work with others from different cultures.

“A lot of issues we are facing now are really global,” she said.

“No one person, no one country or no one company can solve everything. People are becoming aware of the importance of working together” with others across boundaries, said Tanaka.

Hiromi Shikata, a UBS employee who studied in Australia, said her overseas study experience gave her the skills to work with people from different backgrounds, which is helping her at present, as her bosses are all foreigners.

Shikata stressed, however, people need to get out of their comfort zones and actively communicate with others to gain those skills, although the Japanese are typically quiet and shy.

While the world is becoming more competitive and the number of international students has been growing worldwide, fewer Japanese students are studying abroad, prompting concern that they are becoming inward-looking.

The number of Japanese studying abroad hit its peak in 2004 with 82,945 students, but dropped to 58,060 by 2010.

Tanaka said the decline is partially due to Japan’s job-hunting culture that basically requires college students to physically be in Japan. As a result, some are reluctant to study overseas because they are concerned about missing job opportunities.

She added that a recent trend that she sees in studying in the U.K. is that there are more high school students interested in that option.

In the past, many were going there for graduate school, but she sees many coming to counseling events, she said.

While studying abroad may be valuable, doing so is not easy because of the high cost and trouble of going through an application process to get into college.

During the forum, Amy Jarich, assistant vice chancellor and director at the University of California, Berkeley, offered tips on the application process.

For instance, she said that while school transcripts matter, a well-written personal statement that conveys the applicant’s voice and commitment is also important.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be thoughtful and meaningful. And it’s a personal statement, not an essay . . . it’s really a reflection of what you have to deliver to that campus, perhaps,” she said.