Leveraging Your Foreign Service Experience by Studying Abroad

By Kristi Streiffert

I have a diploma I can’t read. It is printed in Greek.

From 2006-2008, while my husband was posted to Nicosia, I enrolled in the University of Cyprus’ very first Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. This professional program was offered in English and I jumped at the chance to enroll since my only daughter was heading off to boarding school in Switzerland. I found out that education abroad can be both a fulfilling experience, and a challenging one.

Many major cities around the world have universities with classes in English, which has more and more become the lingua franca of higher education. Many of the professors at these institutions were educated in America and have taught in U.S. or U.K. universities before returning to their home countries. My program included other international students who had come to Cyprus for the opportunity to participate in a quality program. Students also come because the prices are lower than you might find in similar institutions in the United States.

In my case, when we were posted to Nicosia, I knew we’d be there for two years, and I was lucky enough that our posting started the same month as classes. As a matter of fact, the enrollment process was accomplished online from our post in Managua, and the week we arrived in Nicosia, I started class. Talk about culture shock!

The challenges, both academic and cultural, started immediately. One (minor) issue I hadn’t anticipated is that the program was scheduled around Cypriot holidays, not American ones. I attended class on Labor Day and Thanksgiving, and I had a seminar on Easter weekend. Different countries emphasize different holidays more than others. My first year there, we were still taking finals on December 23rd.

Although classes were conducted in English, sometimes discussions about homework with the professors ended up being in Greek, the language of Cyprus. Also, many emails from the administration office of the program were in Greek. Although my 30 classmates were very friendly and fluent in English, naturally they socialized during class breaks in their own language, so I sometimes had to make an effort to be involved.

I also faced exchange rate issues: the years I received my education were among the worst for the value of the dollar. It could work the other way, but in my case, it cost me.

Being an American made me stand out when I might have wanted to blend in. This was especially true in business classes, I think, because many business discussions center on American successes, standards, policies, regulations and scandals. Not a single class went by that I didn’t find myself the center of questioning – at times with admiration and at other times with raised eyebrows.

However, in spite of these sometimes unexpected twists, I found the experience well worth it. I received a quality MBA for less money and under less stressful circumstances than I might find in the U.S.

I did not have to take graduate entrance exams used at U.S. universities. Admission was based on an application questionnaire and essay, a telephone interview with a University of Cyprus MBA program director and recommendations from my work colleagues. (Obviously, admission requirements vary with programs and university standards.)

One of my favorite perks was my instant immersion into the culture of the country. I made many friendships with locals, visiting with them and their families on holidays, meeting them in local coffee shops for study groups, etc. We even had to deal with difficult cultural issues at times, like balancing my American emphasis on the importance of competition and everyone contributing equally versus the Cypriots’ more inclusive values of being loyal to a group member, and working together to make sure everyone succeeds. I learned a lot more than just business skills from some of these intercultural group dynamics.

In addition, participants in international educational settings will learn about issues and perspectives that they wouldn’t find in an American setting. I imagine, for example, that I know more details of the European banking system than most American MBA grads.
And in the end, after a couple of phone calls, they even sent me a copy of my degree- in English!

http://www.collegeabroad.com/
Listing of colleges seeking American students abroad (search by country for colleges offering programs in English)

Some questions to ask before you sign up:

  • Is the program accredited (will it be accepted by US employers) and is that vital to your goals?
  • How will you pay (electronically, with exchange rate fees? Start a local account?)
  • How is the exchange rate trending? Will a negative trend hamper your ability to pay?
  • What are the class sizes? What size would you prefer?
  • How far is the commute and how is traffic that time of day?
  • When was the program started? If it is brand new, are you prepared to deal with the inevitable glitches?
  • Who are the professors? Have they written books? Are they published in professional or trade journals?

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