Alumni talk about leveraging language skills into careers

“What can I do with this language?”

It’s a question that Michael Kruse often hears from undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which offers instruction in dozens of languages – from those most widely used to many that are less commonly taught.

“Everything is being done in different languages. Anything you can do in English can also be done with a foreign language,” says Kruse, an advisor in UW–Madison’s Language Institute. “It is important to think about your interests and the impact you want to have on the world.”

To offer some perspectives on “what to do with this language,” two UW–Madison alumni who found their own answers – Lora Klenke  and Brett Schilke – spoke to students about their careers and how language skills can be a crucial tool not only abroad but also in Wisconsin’s job market.

The program, “Languages for Life,” was sponsored by the Language Institute, International Internship Program, and Russian Flagship Center, with funding from the College of Letters and Science Anonymous Fund.

Lora Klenke, who has a B.A. in international relations from UW–Madison with an emphasis in East Asian studies, is the vice president of international business development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

Klenke, who has lived and worked in Japan, has 20 years of experience in global development, research and strategic planning. She has spearheaded initiatives with several countries, including China, Japan, Korea, India, Canada, Turkey and Mexico. In her current job, she focuses on increasing Wisconsin’s export and foreign direct investment growth, along with advising the governor, cabinet members and business leaders on opportunities abroad, international trade and diplomacy.

Brett Schilke, a 2008 graduate who majored in psychology and Russian, is the co-founder and CEO of IDEACo, described on its website as “an educational development company that builds resources for inventive learning around the world.” His work has included research, education, community organization and development in six countries on three continents.  He has worked on US-Russian citizen diplomacy and led community development initiatives in Siberia.

Highlight your experiences

“My work experience in Japan really helped me secure a job,” Klenke says. “It was truly an invaluable experience that made me stand out. I interned at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which really got my foot in the door.”

She says that many of Wisconsin’s more than 15,000 companies want to grow by exporting, but lack staff who can help make that happen. “They fear not knowing a foreign language and understanding an international company,” she notes.

“It is critical that you all customize your resumes,” she tells students. “Companies today put them through a computerized system that scans them for buzzwords.”

She lists several specific points:

  • “Make sure you describe your language skill at the beginning of your resume if you are comfortable speaking it well.
  • “Emphasize your coursework, community involvement and any countries visited, even for leisure.
  • “Research and leadership skills are extremely important as well.
  • “Most importantly, proofread resumes.” Some employers disqualify applicants whose resumes contain mistakes.

“Professional networking in the real world is the best way to market yourself,” Klenke says. “I got my job in Japan through a professor at an event on campus.”

She recommends seeking internships with an international focus and networking by connecting locally with such organizations as:

Klenke also notes that students interested in working in the non-profit world, or for such organizations as the Peace Corps, need grant-writing skills, in addition to languages.

Take advantage of opportunities

Schilke recalls that, as a high school student in Appleton, Wisconsin, he never wanted to study a language, let alone travel outside of the United States.

“A teacher at my high school recommended that I work on a website for an international development agency,” he says. “They had an event on global security and safety, which hosted around 250 guests from around the world. Six months later, I was in Siberia launching a Youth Development Program.”

He adds, “I never imagined there were so many career options out there, especially in my own backyard.”

At UW–Madison, Schilke studied Russian, along with Dutch and Chinese, as his love of languages and cultures blossomed.

“I was involved with Learning Enterprises, a NGO that ran an English-language education program with 16 countries,” he says. “I directed their program in Russia while at UW. It involved working with university students and sending them to other parts of the world for community development.”

His senior thesis was based on research in Siberia. He lived there for more than two years and was eventually hired to teach English at a Russian university.

“While I worked, I came up with a community engagement initiative and launched several projects. Once I returned to the States, I got a full-time offer from the international development agency I worked with in high school. As I was looking for something that connected language and culture, I decided to work for them. In January 2013, I reincorporated the company and in the last 14 months we have reached out to four countries and worked with over 30,000 people. “

Schilke urged students to take advantage of opportunities like Sister Cities International and HelpX.

“There are countless thing to do in the world with a language. Everything that can be done in English can be done in a different language as well. Thinking about how to integrate a language into a career is the key,” he explains.

He says his company, IDEACo, does not accept resumes, but encourages students to be creative by sending a video that documents a unique skill.

A non-profit based in Chicago, Wisconsin and San Franciso, IDEACo works with communities to identify problems and locate resources to solve these problems. The current City X project is an initiative for 8- to-10 year-olds to build on problem-solving skills by utilizing design and technology.

Find an internship

“If you are interested in an international career, make sure you do an internship,” he says. “Most importantly, find ways to apply your language skills, don’t just study it in school.”

Several internships available in Wisconsin have an international focus, according to Michelle Kern Hall, assistant director of UW–Madison’s International Internship Program.

“There are several opportunities to use a language in America. International market research in Chinese, Arabic, Polish and Portuguese (among other languages) and business consulting for export and import companies are some examples. Organizations such as Colombia Support Network , a Madison-based NGO and Amigos de las Americas for Spanish speakers are excellent opportunities,” Kern Hall says.

As an advisor, Kruse assists students with the process of identifying the type of work they want to do and the organizations to target. He says that most students have not heard of international organizations beyond the United Nations and US Embassies.

“In Wisconsin, I’ve had students work with firms that export overseas and international companies that conduct market research in a foreign language,” he says.  “A UW alumna who majored in Russian, and previously appeared on the Languages for Life panel, works at Ernst & Young in Chicago.”

And those are just a few of the things a student can do with that language.

— by Neha Alluri