This article also appeared on LinkedIn.
On a flight back home to Taipei recently, I overheard a conversation by an American college student sitting across the aisle from me. He was suggesting places to go in Taiwan to a tourist seated in front of me. The tourist then turned his attention to the student and asked him what he was doing in Taiwan, to which the student replied:
He couldn't afford to go to college in the US, so he's studying in Taiwan, where he pays just $4,000 a year in tuition. He absolutely refused to take on the "crazy levels of student debt" back home.
Even accounting for the steep cost of intercontinental plane flights like the one he had just taken from the US to Taiwan, the total price tag for his education still falls way below what he would have had to bear if he had attended a university back home.
Since some courses are taught in Mandarin Chinese and some in English, he needs to take 10 hours of language classes a week on top of his regular course load. But he finds it manageable, and very useful.
And, he added, he had fallen in love with Taiwan--and Asia--and was planning on relocating there permanently after graduation to pursue his career.
My expat experience
Except for the tattoo on his shoulder and the hipster beard, the student reminded me of my 22-year-old self. I'm a "Generation X-er", but I spent my entire "Millennial" period working and living outside of my home country.
I first came to Taiwan during the summer right after graduating from college. I found a job, taught some English, and explored the country. A year later, after picking up my Master's degree in East Asian studies, I relocated back to Taiwan and, after hanging out and watching too much TV for a few months, found a job at a local firm. When I was 29 and had picked up my MBA back in the US, I returned to Taiwan to start my career at a global management consulting firm.
It's been an incredible adventure: I've gained a new perspective on myself and my own culture, become fluent in Mandarin, raised kids who are bilingual and bicultural, and enjoyed career-expanding and life-changing experiences I'm certain I would have never had if I stayed home.
Of course, there have been a host of challenges I've had to deal with, like culture shock, missing important family milestones, currency risk, and double taxation by the US Internal Revenue Service.
It's been a worthwhile experience, and one that I highly recommend young people consider as well.
Why you should consider earning your degree overseas
I moved overseas once I had my first two degrees in hand. But like the student I overheard on that flight recently, you might want to consider earning your degree abroad. There are hundreds of outstanding institutions to choose from: 980 of them are ranked in the the recently published Times Higher Education survey of the world's top universities.
If language is an issue, there are of course several countries where English is the first language. But if you are a bit more adventurous and willing to invest the time to learn a new language, your options become much wider.
Will having a degree from a foreign university impact your job search?
Large multinational companies routinely hire from universities around the world, so as long as your degree and experience are a fit for the job you're applying to, this shouldn't be a barrier to landing a position.
Regardless of whether you apply to a sprawling multinational corporation or a venture-backed startup with a few dozen employees, having lived, studied, or worked abroad will equip you with several valuable qualities that recruiters are all looking for, like problem-solving, initiative, and the ability to work effectively in cross-cultural environments. Depending on the nature of the role, some recruiters are likely to view mastery of a foreign language as a plus.
And once you've earned your degree, you may decide to stay in your host country to pursue your career. Working and living abroad, as I've learned over the past two and a half decades, will expose you to opportunities you wouldn't have back home. It will give you the chance to grow professionally at a much faster rate.
But don't just take it from me: In HSBC's latest "Expat Explorer" survey, 49% of expat Millennials said they are more fulfilled at work than they were in their home country.
A few words of advice
The decision to move overseas, whether to earn a degree or to find a job, is a big one, and there's a lot you'll need to consider before you take the plunge. But here are a few pieces of advice that might help you get started:
1. Learn the language.
I've known many people who studied the language of their host country for years before even showing up. I've also known many people who can barely get past "hello" or "thank you." I feel sorry for these people--good friends that they are-- because I know they are perpetually cut off from so much of the local culture, and their outsider status is reinforced by this gap.
All expats are ultimately outsiders, but you can penetrate the invisible bubble that separates you from the local culture by committing yourself to learning the language.
2. Travel to the place you are considering moving to.
Books, articles, and blog posts are useful, but they aren't a replacement for actually living somewhere. If a trip to your target country is too expensive, then be sure to ask people who are currently living there, and those who have lived there recently, for their impressions and advice.
3. Prepare for two varieties of culture shock.
Culture shock can be subtle--you might not even recognize that it's affecting you. You might feel frustrated that things are not done the way they are back home. Dealing with culture shock is one of the pitfalls of living abroad.
But here's the rub: It works in both directions. Expect to suffer some level of what I call "reverse culture shock", the feeling of being an outsider in your home country, after living abroad for a while.
4. Start small--then expand.
If you're uncertain about committing to a full degree program, or you're on a tight budget, consider a short stint where you support yourself with a part-time job, like teaching English (or your native language). Then, when you've put down some roots, and saved up some money, explore longer-term degree programs.
If you're in college, spend a semester or two studying in your target country, or spend a summer there. If you're still in high school and getting close to graduation, consider spending a gap year abroad.
5. Take advantage of the "white space" in your life.
Before you've settled down and established yourself at a company, and before you take on the obligations that come with raising a family, now is probably one of the best times you'll ever have to explore the world. Take advantage of this "white space" in your life to immerse yourself in a new culture, meet new people--and discover yourself along the way.