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A stint abroad for students can boost employability

Langara students Pearlena Hamilton, left, and Sae Nakajima, are taking part in Disney International’s Academic Exchange program, which mixes studies and paid work.

Langara College

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."

While Walt Disney wasn't talking about Canadian college students when he uttered his memorable quote, Vancouver's Langara College is happy to tap into the magic of the world he created.

As one of six Canadian postsecondary institutions taking part in the Disney International's Academic Exchange program, Langara students have the opportunity to mix studies at the University of California, Riverside, and Disney University, with six months of paid work at the famous Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

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Pearlena Hamilton, a 23-year-old Vancouver native, calls it an "essential experience" to have at her age. After starting her degree in business management with ambitions to be an event planner, she says her aspirations have changed a bit.

"Now I'm just trying to figure out what I want to do and, essentially, that's why I moved away from home: to discover new experiences," she says.

Having spent two weeks in California for training earlier in the summer, Ms. Hamilton has been in Orlando since July. She started working in merchandising at the Magic Kingdom, but was recently transferred to the Epcot Centre for attractions.

When she is not busy working at the parks, she is also taking two courses, one relating to Disney and one that gives her a transferable credit that she can take back to Langara in January.

"Just having an education in both my degree and the history of Disney has been quite a unique experience," she says. "You can't get that anywhere else, other than working and studying in a program like this."

Outside of the classroom and away from the massed throngs that fill the parks 365 days a year, Ms. Hamilton has had the chance to mix with other college students who are also along for the ride. Disney also provides a number of opportunities for its employees to socialize together, from subsidized cruises to the Caribbean, to short-break trips to places like New York.

Though she is coincidentally rooming with another Canadian, hanging out with people from her own country has been more the exception than the rule.

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"Going on an international program, it's not only showing people the way I do things back home," she says, "but it's also learning what they do back home and the end goal is seeing how we do it differently."

Outside of deepening her understanding of different cultures, the experience may also stand her in good stead when it comes to gaining employment, when she has figured out exactly what she wants to do.

According to Heather Workman, department chair of Langara's co-op and career development centre, another student who was looking to get into sports marketing didn't get any traction with any of the local Vancouver teams at first. But after undergoing the Disney program, she applied to one of the bigger professional teams in the area and got the job, paving the way for other Langara students to follow in her footsteps.

"They brought her in just because they saw Disney on her résumé and they didn't typically hire students from Langara College before that, they just stuck with universities," Ms. Workman says.

"They said, 'Disney understands brand, this sports organization is all about brand.' So they knew that she would get how important it was to keep the brand intact."

Langara College is also in the process of selecting a pair of students in business or computer science to go to New Delhi in January as part of a partnership the school has with local company Optimus Information Inc.

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Ms. Workman says she has seen a shift in the number of students wanting to expand their horizons and look abroad. Increased employability is just one of those reasons.

"If you're applying for a job at the Royal Bank and 10 candidates all have bachelor of business administration but you, as a candidate, have been working overseas in New Delhi and understand what it means to work in a new culture, I know that you'll stand out," she says.

Others with experience in the field say that it's not just a matter of standing out, but that getting international exposure is part of becoming a well-rounded member of society.

"International experience is part of a set of 21st-century skills of being a global citizen," says Scott Lehbauer, chair of developmental education at Lethbridge College in Alberta.

Lethbridge College offers five exchange programs for one or two semesters during a program of study. So, for instance, a business student can experience life at the University of Burgundy in France or Kajaani Polytechnic in Finland, while those pursuing studies in culinary arts can spend time honing their skills in Austria.

"You see them grow in a lot of different ways," Mr. Lehbauer says. "A student that goes abroad and studies at a foreign institution creates relationships, creates contacts, creates a network of support in a completely different place in the world."

At Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., an emphasis on global alliances has led to involvement in two projects in Kenya, while the faculties of journalism and filmmaking have sent students to Peru to document some of the work being done there in the field of culinary arts.

The school has also built a relationship with Eqwip Hubs, an international organization providing opportunities for young people abroad.

"For our students, the practical side of their education is key," says Mark Herringer, dean of international education at Durham College. "So what we're able to do through Eqwip Hubs is to provide students with three to four months of international opportunities in a variety of different project opportunities around the world."

Virtual travel

While there are many benefits to students who include an international experience as part of their postsecondary studies, not many take advantage of these programs.

Only 1.1 per cent of full-time Canadian college students have a credit or not-for-credit educational experience abroad annually, according to 2010 figures from a report by the Canadian Bureau for International Education on international education and mobility. The same report lists 82 per cent of Canadian colleges and institutes as offering such experiences.

Financial hurdles are one of the main obstacles, so schools such as Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., have instituted education-broad scholarships.

But even such financial resources are not always sufficient.

In response to this, Durham College professor Lon Appleby founded the Global Class, an initiative that uses high-definition videoconferencing technology to bring together groups of students from around the world for live discussions.

"There's actually a real need to provide a forum for free where students can have an introductory intercultural experience through technology and meet people from all over the world and learn about their ideas and see them clearly and study their body language," he says.

So far, the program has connected students from about 34 countries and fostered in-depth conversations on topics from music, education and racism to climate change, ethics and fake news.

The development of technology to the point where there is little to no lag or drop-off in signal provides a compelling forum and helps keep students engaged with the experience, Mr. Appleby adds.

Though he doesn't suggest the Global Class is the same as being there, he does think there is a benefit to such an introductory experience.

"I think that's really important in getting students the ability to engage with ideas from other countries in dialogue that can open their minds and begin to fill that need that students must satisfy of beginning to be more global," he says.

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