Six successful people who studied abroad

By Robyn Peers and Megan Dawson

When we talk about how some of the most high-achieving individuals got to where they are, we often focus more on identifying a pivotal moment of realization, rather than considering all the smaller experiences that contribute to their success. Because of this, experiences that can impact their future career choices and achievements are often ignored. One example of this phenomenon is studying abroad. Many successful people, at some point during their education, took advantage of opportunities to study in another country, and can be seen to have reaped benefits both large and small from this decision. Here are just six examples of how studying abroad has helped shape the careers of extremely successful individuals in different fields.

Kevin Systrom

While Systrom’s name may not be familiar to many, the app that he co-created with Mike Krieger can be found on countless smartphones across the globe. The Instagram CEO and co-founder spent his junior year abroad studying in Florence, Italy while pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He credits his time there as being a factor that helped lead to his success as an entrepreneur and a programmer. In a video interview with Forbes magazine Systrom specifically mentions a situation while abroad when a teacher introduced him to a plastic camera called a Holga as being a major source of inspiration for him.  He further states that the photography class he took abroad, while not necessarily totally relevant to his degree at the time, ultimately shaped his perspective on the world and informed his decisions when creating Instagram.


Vera Wang

Renowned American fashion designer Vera Wang began her career as an editor for Vogue magazine, but she is best-known for her evening and bridal wear. During her time studying art history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, Vera moved to Paris, France for a year to study at the Sorbonne. In a biography by Katherine Krohn, she claims Vera was inspired by the architecture, art, and especially fashion that Paris has to offer. This study abroad experience most likely contributed to the passion that led Wang to become one of the most successful fashion designers today.


Guy Fieri

Guy Fieri, best known for hosting several shows on the Food Network, also mentions his time spent studying abroad in Chantilly, France, as having a major impact on his career trajectory. In an online profile of him on the Food Network’s website, it is mentioned that Guy saved money from selling pretzels and washing dishes for several years in order to afford his exchange.  Fieri claims it was in France that he gained his deep appreciation for international cuisine which would later influence his career as a professional chef and television personality.


Bradley Cooper

Famous actor Bradley Cooper is another exchange alumnus whose international experiences have benefitted his career years later – for him, it was the time he spent in Aix-en-Provence, France. During the press tour to promote his 2011 film The Hangover Part II, Cooper was able to conduct an interview in French, suggesting that he may have acquired an interest in the language while immersed directly in the culture.


William Kamkwamba

Malawian inventor, speaker, and author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba, furthered his engineering curiosity while attending English classes at Regent Language Institute in Cambridge, England. After creating a windmill to power his family’s home, Kamkwamba attracted interest from engineers and inventors across the globe who wished to support him further in his education and subsequent projects. During the summer of 2008, while improving his English through the Cambridge-based classes, he spent some time exploring the city and admiring the century-old buildings that surrounded him. Upon returning home to Malawi, he was motivated to continue developing his home country in Africa as he worked on projects devoted to clean water, solar power, and malaria prevention.


Harper Lee

To most people, whether or not they are fans of literature, Harper Lee is renowned for her best-selling novel To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as for the posthumously published sequel, Go Set a Watchman. It may come as a surprise to many that Lee originally pursued a degree in law, spending a year in the University of Alabama’s law school before embarking on a summer exchange to Oxford University to study English literature. It was after this summer, which some have claimed was her father’s attempt to get literature out of her system, that Lee ultimately made the decision to drop out of law school in order to pursue a career in writing, a decision that contributed to the ultimate creation and publishing of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 12 years later.


The lesson?

These individuals, all of whom have unique experiences and belong to separate fields, illustrate some of the ways in which internationalizing your degree or educational pursuits can open up a range of new possibilities. The opportunity to engage with alternative ways of thinking, as well as to become immersed in the language and culture of a different country, could bring about new ideas, or even simply offer the chance to gain abilities that might prove invaluable years down the line.

This article was written as a contribution to the Canadian Bureau for International Education’s #LearningAbroad campaign.

Robyn Peers is a fourth-year Honours Co-op Arts and Business student majoring in English Literature and Rhetoric at the University of Waterloo.

Megan Dawson is a fourth-year Honours Co-op Arts student majoring in Sociology at the University of Waterloo.