UMD: A Globally Connected University

The Case for Study Abroad as Career Development - A Conversation with Sophia Wooden

The Case for Study Abroad as Career Development - A Conversation with Sophia Wooden

May 8, 2023 | By Audrey Bartholomew

When you think of professional development, what often comes to mind is a networking event through your college, certifications for your LinkedIn page, and maybe a supplementary class from Smith to drop on your resume if you have the time. International education can drift into an afterthought for students with highly structured four-year plans. After all, if the only language you need to secure a full-time offer is Python or JavaScript, what’s the point in learning Spanish?      

What’s often absent from these conversations is the mention of studying abroad in facilitating career growth. It’s true that international experiences foster profound personal transformation through foreign language practice, heightened self-reliance, and the acquisition of multicultural knowledge. This is the primary appeal for these programs—to go abroad and return with a skill set that cannot be replicated on campus. From my own experience in Dublin last summer as a part of the Global Summer Internship Program, I knew that my participation was a transformative personal experience, and I returned to the U.S. for the fall semester with more confidence in myself than ever before, with the knowledge that it’s pivotal to step outside of your comfort zone to grow in any meaningful way. More than that, my time in an Irish advertising agency rapidly accelerated my professional skills—being a cultural outsider prompted me to listen often, avoid assumptions, and approach every task thoughtfully. Working abroad uniquely exposes your weak spots, reinforces them with steel, and expands your professional network to boot. 

It’s easy to make the case that international education has as much to teach you about the workplace as it does to teach you about yourself—but outside of my own experience, what does international professional development look like for other UMD students? In pursuit of answering this question, I contacted Sophia Wooden, a junior marketing major, who studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, this spring. She shared over Zoom that going abroad is something she’d planned for years before ever coming to the University of Maryland. A lifelong interest in fashion imparted her with the knowledge that going abroad would be crucial in facilitating the connections she would need to advance in the highly competitive and creative industry. Further, her multi-year study of the Spanish language throughout high school and early college encouraged her to practice these skills in a real-world setting through the Maryland-in-Barcelona program. 

“I have Google notes in my phone from like 2019, I was a junior in high school planning my study abroad to Barcelona, it’s the only program that I’ve actually thought about,” said Wooden.

Wooden’s experience mirrors many others with long-term plans to study abroad during their undergraduate careers, but intentionality was a defining characteristic of her experience throughout. Getting the opportunities she wanted, would require significant amounts of time, grit, and planning. 

“I’m not just here to be on a vacation,” said Wooden. 

Her passion for fashion ignited Wooden to get involved in any way she could while she was overseas, and for good reason—Europe is the place to be for luxury fashion, and France is the leading country for the industry in the world. During her sophomore year, Wooden got to work in making contact with Aeffe S.p.A, one year ahead of her departure. Headquartered in Italy and founded in 1972 by Alberta Ferretti, Aeffe S.p.A. is the parent company of some of the biggest luxury clothing brands in the world, including Moschino, Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini, Pollini, and more. After submitting a creative resume and cover letter, she spoke with a company representative and began to make arrangements.   

“They took a chance on me and I decided to take the initiative to go and just really place myself in that space to learn,” said Wooden. 

And learn she did. This past March, with a quick flight to Paris, Wooden got insider access as an intern to the Aeffe S.p.A. showroom during their fashion market period. The pictures she shared depict a scene that would otherwise be impossible to experience from the U.S.: models getting fitted for the newest collections, sample Moschino shoes lined up on tables, avant-garde purses displayed on glass shelves—in other words, a dream for aspiring creatives everywhere.    

“I think it’s really important to have personal projects and to constantly be evolving and learning and growing in ways that I can’t in a classroom,” said Wooden. 

Beyond the memorable experience of seeing Paris in springtime and the Aeffe showroom for herself, Wooden also got the chance to connect with the President of Aeffe USA, Michelle Stein. As of March 30, Stein has since stepped down from her 40-year tenure with the company, but her achievements in curating the development strategies for brands including Jean Paul Gaultier, Fuzzi, and Cacharel made her an excellent resource for Wooden in learning how to grow in the industry.   

In addition to speaking about the benefits of these programs and the many positive experiences she’s had overseas, Sophia shared some of the challenges she’s faced in belonging to a minority identity while abroad.  

“It is unfortunate to see a lot of my friends and family at home not having these opportunities and not being able to have people that look like me in the program,” said Wooden.

Wooden’s perspective is an important one to listen to and amplify when it comes to the accessibility surrounding these programs. Historically, the majority of students who participate in study abroad programs are white, while students of color remain largely underrepresented. Further, economic factors including tuition costs, international flights, passport renewals, and other expenses only serve as additional barriers to participation for those who do not come from affluent backgrounds. 

“I think there’s a lot of growth that needs to happen with bringing a more diverse population of students to study abroad, financially and racially,” said Wooden.

When it comes to the current state of education abroad for UMD, the 2022-23 school year saw increases in first-generation participation, transfer students, and students who indicated it was their first time outside of the U.S. Additionally, 37 programs include internships abroad—equipping students across all majors and identities with the tools they need to thrive in an ever-evolving post-graduate landscape. This effort to foster global citizens is supported by UMD’s Fearlessly Forward strategic plan released last February, which re-imagines learning at a global scale to empower students in pursuit of the common good. On April 26, the fifth annual Maryland International Education Day, the state of Maryland along with the Maryland International Education Consortium signed a proclamation that will promote internationalization in higher education across the state. The fight for equity in international education is far from over, but continuing to steadily align ourselves with policies and practices that seek to remedy these gaps in access is the first of many steps forward. 

“I’m just glad that I’ve had this opportunity because it’ll help me serve others better,” said Wooden. 

Even though the semester is coming to a close, Wooden is not slowing down on her personal projects and is now beginning to shift her focus toward the positive change she can foster stateside. She shared that she is working on creating the first Fashion Business Association for students interested in fashion at UMD, so that they can better connect to opportunities in the field, meet other like-minded students, and ready themselves for their future careers—whether it’s Paris or College Park. Her closing advice for other students is to explore other cultures in any way they can.  

“Even though I come from a multicultural background, I’m still dumbfounded at how much I’ve been able to learn through really observing this other culture and language,” said Wooden. 

For on-campus UMD students, you don’t have to go abroad to participate in global learning. Check out the new webpage for the office of Global Learning Initiatives to learn more about how you can get involved. 


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