The value of an international education

Welcoming international students at the start of the semester is definitely one of the highlights of my working year. I feel privileged to be able to provide the opportunity for an international academic experience, a life-changing experience, and to see enthusiastic young people meet at the northernmost university of the European Union, the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Also, when an undergraduate student returns from abroad and tells me about their personal growth and the skills they have learned, I could not love my job more.

My work as the head of international student services is to ensure that the students of the University of Lapland have an international component in their degree and that this is properly supported. This could be through studying at a partner university abroad, completing a minor subject in English or taking a foreign language and culture or intercultural communication courses. Extracurricular activities exist too.

For the world

The mission statement of the University of Lapland, "For the North – For the World", guides my work. According to the recently published EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe, the main benefits of internationalisation from a student’s perspective are preparing them to live and work in a globalised world.

Future employees must be prepared to work in “a changing world buffeted by megatrends such as changing demographics, resource scarcity, technological change and globalisation”, according to the 2014 Centre for International Mobility, or CIMO, report Hidden Competences.

It is not only academic knowledge that helps people get hired, but more importantly the whole package of a graduate’s personality, competence and skills that have been developed over the years. Employability and understanding what employers are seeking are vital.

There are numerous studies and reports on the skills employers value. For example, in her article "International Businesses: Consumers of Global Talent?" Nannette Ripmeester, director of Expertise in Labour Mobility, argues that skills such as communication and creative problem-solving, adaptability, ambition, eagerness to grow and analytical thinking skills are very important but very rare as well. This is backed up by Bloomberg’s Recruiter Report on MBAs. What does this mean for international education?

Re-thinking international competence

Studies like Hidden Competences offer a very fresh perspective and show that the learning outcomes of international mobility should be better defined so they are more visible and valued.

The world has become globally interconnected. As the Hidden Competences study shows, studying or working abroad is not enough in itself. Different skills and abilities are valued today: productivity, curiosity and resilience. And it is the international experience which is likely to develop these skills in students.

Technological developments and innovative new technologies can support students, not just mobile students, to learn about and understand the importance of global competence. For example, the CareerProfessor application – an informative quiz on cultural differences – helps student develop the skills needed to be successful in the global labour market.

This is what our approach is based on: instead of adopting a top down approach to students which doesn’t encourage independence, we develop services and an academic culture that help students to solve problems themselves and make their own decisions. We provide the tools and direction, but the students are responsible for using those tools for their own development.

The benefits of being a small university is that we can provide an individual and personal approach to these services as well as to their studies. The focus is always on smooth and flexible procedures rather than on rigid, traditional ways of doing things. This also means focusing on quality and reacting quickly to feedback as we develop the services we offer.

Developing skills for the future

In the Arctic Circle, international students must adapt not only to the Finnish culture, but also to the extreme climate. Understanding our university and student profile has helped us position ourselves on the global university map and has helped us to manage student expectations. On one hand, we know that not every student is willing to study in the Arctic Circle; and on the other hand, our students know what they are getting.

Apart from our profile and location, our academic culture and practices can be learned. The concept of academic freedom in Finland means, for example, that students have the right to choose when and how they complete their courses. However, it also means that students are responsible for their own studies and have obligations related to them.

The challenge from the student perspective is to develop new learning methods, adapt to a new learning environment, separate themselves from the familiar and thus grow as a person. Student feedback shows they appreciate this system. They emphasise personal growth, finding new approaches, building self-confidence, successfully dealing with the challenges of a new environment – and newly developed skills, such as productivity, curiosity and resilience.

In this article I have introduced one way of approaching the impact of an international experience from the students’ as well as from the university’s perspective. The main point is that the university provides the tools which allow students to navigate towards the skills which will enhance their employability.

The importance of my job becomes clear when a student with international experience, as well as the competence it has helped develop, finds his or her place and mission in this world.

These words from one of our United States masters students keep me working: “Before coming here I had a life plan but now that plan has changed completely. Coming here helped me make decisions about my future. Lapland has been really instrumental in helping me make those choices and giving me a lot of opportunities to do things I wouldn’t normally do.

"I think that whenever you travel, and especially when you live in a different country, it changes you. It makes you realise more things about yourself. You overcome many challenges, and that helps you grow and become a better person.”

Jaana Severidt works as head of international student services at the University of Lapland in Finland. She has been working in the field of international higher education for the past eight years and holds a masters degree in social sciences (international relations) from the University of Lapland. Before entering the international higher education field, she worked in the travel and tourism marketing and retail trade. She lives in Rovaniemi at the Arctic Circle with her German husband and their two Finnish-German daughters. Severidt can be reached by email via or on Twitter @jaanaseveridt. She spoke at the European Association for International Education, or EAIE, conference last week in a session entitled “Are you supporting or coddling your international students?”