If you have ever asked someone who studied abroad whether or not they thought that the experience was worth the time and money, I’ll bet that they would said, “Absolutely!” I’ve run across very few students who have returned from their study abroad program with any negative feelings (aside from how much they miss being abroad!).
Study abroad changes a student’s life in a way that he or she never even considered possible. Most students who study abroad with the intention of truly immersing themselves into a new culture will find that they grow academically, personally, and professionally throughout their experience.
Understandably, deciding to study abroad can seem like a huge, life-changing decision. And really, it is – studying abroad often forces you to leave your home, often for at least one semester, to travel somewhere new and unfamiliar.
1. Why Study Abroad?
The advantages to study abroad are truly incredible. Academically, students are given the opportunity to step away from the classes and professors at their home institutions in order to take different and often unique classes with professors elsewhere.
This new classroom allows for the exchange of ideas that is often drastically different than those that may have been expressed at home, and it gives students a new perspective – both inside and outside the classroom – from people who come from different societal and cultural backgrounds. Students must immerse themselves in a culture that they may not know very much about. And if the student is learning a foreign language as well, it can be a constantly challenging environment.
In my experience working with returning study abroad students, many state that they experienced a substantial amount of personal development while they were abroad. Many found themselves to become more responsible for their actions, and for their own daily lives instead of relying on friends or family for basic problems. Students also tend to find that their world view is much more diversified after studying abroad, which allows them to relate to, understand, and respect cultures other than their own more effectively. All of these benefits can be related to employability for study abroad alumni after graduation.
With the world becoming more and more well connected, many industries are placing a higher value on global awareness when assessing a candidate’s skills. Global awareness skills, particularly when related to study abroad, include things like cross-cultural communication, foreign language skills, adaptability, and willingness to take risks.
As industries continue to develop globally, these skills will only become more important and will make study abroad alumni that much more desirable.
2. Study Abroad vs International Studies
The term “study abroad” typically refers to students who are enrolled in a degree program at a university in their home country, and who are studying at another institution abroad for one semester, year, or during a school holiday.
Being an international student typically involves a student enrolling in a degree program at a university outside of their home country. The processes for each of these types of international study are different, and each option will attract a very different type of student.
Studying abroad is great for a student who is interested in enhancing their collegiate experience by immersing himself or herself in another culture while still being able to obtain a degree in their home country. Becoming an international student will likely be a much more intensive experience, as you’ll be spending anywhere from 3-5 years living in another country as if you were a student from that country.
The following information applies more to study abroad students than it does to international students, although international students will certainly benefit from some of the advice given.
3. Fitting Study Abroad into Your Program
Whether you are an athlete who can’t miss an entire season or a pre-med student who has a hard time fitting sleep into their schedule, there is a study abroad program for you. Even if you find yourself incredibly busy during the semesters at your home university and you can’t see studying abroad fitting in, you may find that a semester abroad will give you the clarity of mind to finish your studies in a more effective way than if you’d chosen to remain barely swimming for eight continuous semesters.
Choose a study abroad program where you’ll be able to fulfill General Education requirements (don’t take all of them your freshman year!), and you won’t be “wasting” your time abroad. All of these courses will still count towards your final degree program, but you’ll still have the opportunity to be overseas.
If you’re certain that you want to be taking major or minor-related courses while you’re abroad, find a destination that is well known in your field of study. For example, if you’re a theater or literature major, you might want to consider London. On the other hand, if you’re a biology or ecology major, perhaps Australia, New Zealand, or certain African countries may be better suited to your field, depending on how adventurous you are.
There are also summer and winter break programs that will allow you to go abroad anywhere from a week or two to a few months, still while not missing a semester. Unfortunately, these programs are often more expensive than semester programs because the fees are in addition to the regular tuition you’re already paying while semester programs are often somehow integrated into your tuition.
These programs also run the risk of being “vacations” more than semester programs because you’re only abroad for such a short period of time. Try to find a program that is at the very least two weeks in length, but preferably even longer in order to get the most out of your experience.
4. Choosing a Program
Now that you’ve decided you want to study abroad, it’s time to decide which program is right for you. You’ll first want to find out which study abroad programs your university offers. Often, your university will have partnerships with specific universities or program providers, and you’ll have to choose from one of those for the credits to transfer back.
Make a meeting with your university’s study abroad advisor to find out what the process is and what your options are. You may also find a list of study abroad options listed on the study abroad page on your university’s website.
If you don’t need to adhere to a list of approved programs, begin looking at www.goabroad.com, as they have a very comprehensive list of program options run through different universities and providers worldwide.
There are many factors that go into choosing a study abroad program, most notably including location, price, the type of program, the length of stay, and the academics. Which factor will be most important to you is highly dependent on what’s important to you in your study abroad experience. That athlete I mentioned before might think the length of program is most important to him or her, while the pre-med student might want academics to rank highly.
Here are some more thoughts on the factors to consider:
Location is everything, right? Well, yes and no. There are also so many places in the world to study that it can really be overwhelming to figure out where to start.
To choose a location, it can be easier to decide what type of city you want to live in (small, large, village, etc.), what kind of climate you want, and what type of immersion experience you want. The first two of those should be obvious, but the last is where location gets a little tricky.
Cultural immersion is possible anywhere, but it is significantly easier in some places than in others. If you go to a country that doesn’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs, cultural immersion will be both very difficult and quite impossible to avoid. You’ll have to learn some of the language and customs to survive, but you’ll likely find it hard to make friends if you can’t communicate with them easily. Similarly, if you go somewhere where they don’t speak your language, but you do speak theirs, immersion will probably be easier and extremely rewarding for you.
To choose your perfect study abroad location, try narrowing down your options by region/continent (South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, or North America). Some of these might be more available to you than others depending on where your home university is located. Once you have your region down, try narrowing down based on the previously mentioned criteria (city size, language, etc.). This process should get you much closer to the perfect study abroad location for you.
Price will vary greatly by the location, and especially by the length of the program. If you study abroad during the summer or winter break, the fees will be in addition to whatever tuition you already pay at your home university. If you choose to go abroad for a semester or year, the fee structure may be different.
Many universities charge students their regular tuition fees, including merit scholarships and financial aid, so you don’t end up paying any more or less than you would if you were staying at your home campus (although not all universities use this fee structure, so be sure to check with your study abroad office). If your financial aid plan includes some form of work-study, the amount of aid you get that particular semester may be impacted unless they offer a work-study position abroad, which is unlikely.
The costs that will vary for a semester-length program will be the fee for room and board. Even if your university allows you to continue paying your normal tuition fees, you’ll likely be paying the room and board abroad instead of what you’d normally pay at home. This means that if the cost of living is less in your study abroad location, you’ll probably pay less than you would at home (saving money!), but if the cost of living is more than it is at your home university than you’ll probably be paying more.
It’s likely that the cost of studying abroad will be the same or higher than if you were to spend the semester on your home campus after you factor in extra things like airfare and sightseeing. As study abroad is continuing to gain in popularity and universities are realizing the importance of it, the number of scholarship opportunities has grown.
Examples for general studies include:
- Gilman Scholarship Program – The Gilman Scholarship is a scholarship program created by the Institute of International Education meant to increase the number of underrepresented students who study abroad. In order to apply, students must be receiving a Pell Grant. The scholarship amount is up to $5,000.
- Global Studies Foundation Student Grant – The GSF Student Grant is intended for an American study abroad student. One grant of $1,000 is given each year.
Be sure to check with your study abroad provider or institution to see if they offer any aid or scholarships. Many study abroad providers such as CIEE, SIT, and IFSA-Butler (among others) offer their own scholarship programs. To search for scholarships that are specific to your area of study, check out Study Abroad Funding.
5. Types of Programs
It helps to understand the different types of program options when you’re deciding where to study abroad. There are typically three types: direct enrollment, island, and hybrid.
A direct enrollment program is the type where you’ll enroll directly into a foreign university and take classes with local students (often in the local language). This type of program usually offers less administrative support for foreigners than other study abroad programs do, and you’re typically treated more or less like any other student.
An island program is normally run through a program provider, or outside organization responsible for organizing classes, trips, administration, etc. Students typically only have classes with other program participants in an island program, which is especially helpful if you don’t speak the local language. Often these programs will offer help finding housing, plan program-sponsored trips, and will have extensive administrative support.
A hybrid program is something in between an island and a direct enroll program. Some of the classes in a hybrid program will be with other program participants, but you may have the opportunity to take classes with local or international students as well. If you’re more independent, and you’re comfortable with jumping right into a new university then direct enrollment could be a great option for you!
Often there is a study abroad office that will help you arrange your classes and housing, and your home institution’s study abroad office should be able to help with that as well. If you don’t speak the local language, or you feel that you’d like some more support while you’re abroad (which is totally okay!), then an island or hybrid program may be the better option.
6. The Application Process
The study abroad program application is typically similar to an application for a university. You’ll most likely need to provide your current academic transcript, letter(s) of recommendation, and a personal statement to the university or provider you’re applying to.
You’ll also want to check with your academic advisor ahead of the application process to be sure that the classes you plan to take will transfer back to your home university, and count for the requirements you need them to count for. You’ll definitely want to contact the study abroad office at your home institution to see if they have a specific application procedure.
Many universities require that you first apply to the study abroad office, and they will then release you to apply directly to the program. It’s important not to do these applications out of order because this might cause problems when it comes time for you to be released from your home campus for a semester. You’ll also find out at the time you speak to the study abroad office how exactly the fees will work- specifically, whether you’ll pay the program directly, or continue paying your normal tuition.
Before you leave to study abroad, it’s important to do a little bit of groundwork on your trip. You should first know exactly what you’re expected to do, and what your program is taking care of for you. For example, you should know if you’ll need to find your own housing, and figure out how exactly to do that.
Many programs will provide you with housing, and some may offer you a choice in which type of housing you’d prefer. There are generally three types of study abroad housing: off-campus apartments, on campus dorms or apartments, and homestays.
A homestay is when you live with a local person or family. Typically a homestay includes some meals, and it will allow you to further immerse yourself in the local culture. You may be sharing a room with a host sibling or program participant, or you may have your own room depending on the host’s living situation.
You’ll also want to know what type of visa, if any, you’ll need to study in the country. Your program or home study abroad office should be providing you with this information, but it certainly isn’t something to be overlooked. You’ll also want to do some general research about the culture, current politics, and lifestyle in your new host city and country. Knowing about the place you’ll be living before you arrive is key to gaining a deeper understanding and better immersion experience while you’re abroad. It will also help you to settle in more quickly because there will be fewer surprises.
In addition to the above research, it’s also important to do some self-reflection and discover what prior notions you have about your new home that you’ve developed without ever having been there. These types of expectations and stereotypes can be harmless, but they may also prevent you from entering into your experience with an open mind. There are many things that you may not expect to be different that are, and there may be things that you’ve simply overlooked.
For example, when compared to those in the United States, most European washing machines run extremely harsh cycles no matter how delicate the setting. This may not seem like such a big deal until half of your clothes are damaged or stained and you’re stuck buying new things. There isn’t a whole lot that you can do about this, but try not to bring super delicate items, and put fewer things in each load. This is, of course, just one of many examples, but it’s important to have a relatively open mind and let the small things roll off your back.
Perpetuation of stereotypes and how to avoid It
Many study abroad students go into their experience with a host of stereotypes that they’ve developed about their host culture, and other cultures abroad. Usually, students see the error of their ways as they progress through their experience, which is exactly the point of study abroad, but going into your experience with some of these stereotypes already debunked is an even better way to ensure that you enjoy your experience.
One of the best things about traveling is being able to experience different cultures. Seriously, how amazing is it that people all over the world are living totally different lives in totally different ways simultaneously, and it’s possible for you to visit and see it for yourself? Being able to go and experience these places requires a ton of open-mindedness that sometimes evades new travelers and study abroad students.
For example, I’ve heard students studying in Europe say that they intentionally skipped visiting Paris because “I’ve heard that the French are rude to tourists who don’t speak French.” As charming as that is, instead consider that you’re visiting their beautiful country, and you should try to learn how to say “bon jour”- it will make your experience infinitely better, and there are places in France too good to miss because of a silly stereotype!
I appreciate that you can’t learn the language and customs of every single country you’ll visit, but learning how to say “hello” and “thank you” wherever you go will go a very long way in helping you see the true personality of the place that you’re visiting.
An important term to understand in the world of study abroad is “ethnocentrism”. Ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture is superior to other cultures. I am by no means saying that all study abroad students believe this in a malicious way, but the truth is that the idea beaten into us from a young age.
All you need to do to combat ethnocentrism is think about situations you experience that seem strange or wrong to you from a different perspective. Instead of saying that the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road, say that they simply drive on a different side. Looking at traits, actions, and cultural phenomenon of a different country from this perspective will go a long way to helping you truly immerse and accept your new host culture.
For more information and tips on living in a different culture, check out this other Backpacker Travel article
Once you’ve done your research, cleared your mind, and have gotten yourself excited about your new adventure, all of the practicality begins! Packing can seem highly stressful, mostly because it seems like such a daunting task. Fortunately, packing isn’t nearly as daunting once you really consider exactly what you’ll use.
First, you’ll need to consider the climate of your host city for the entire length of time you’ll be living there. Do you need to pack for winter and spring? That will make things a little more challenging, but not impossible. Consider what you actually wear in a given week, and start with that. You’ll have the ability to do laundry while you’re abroad, so you really only need a couple of weeks’ worth of clothes. Remember that you’ll probably end up buying some things while you’re there, and anything you forget or can’t fit can probably be purchased where you’ll be (after all, the local people seem to be just fine!).
You’ll also want to bring several electrical adapters. Most of your chargers (phone, camera, computer) will have automatic voltage converters in them, so you won’t need more than one voltage converter, if you need one at all. I would also recommend purchasing heat-producing items like hair dryers and hair straighteners once you’re abroad. I once melted my hair with a straightener in London because not even a voltage converter could handle the power coming through those British sockets!
8. Once You’re Abroad
Once you’re living abroad, you may find that you experience a ton of different thoughts and emotions towards your host city/culture, and towards the experience. This process is known as culture shock.
Symptoms of culture shock might include:
- Resentment of host culture
Typically, culture shock is experienced in four phases, although this can change for everyone, and some people may not experience all of them:
The “Honeymoon” Phase
This is when you’ve first arrived to your host country, and you’re in awe of nearly everything you see. Everything seems very new and exciting, and you’re anticipating all of the fantastic experiences you’re sure to have. At this point, you’ll probably still have a very idealistic view of your host culture and city.
The Crisis Phase
During the crisis, you’re starting to realize how different your host culture is from your home culture, and you might be a little resentful of that. This can be especially challenging in a country where you don’t speak the language, as you may be frustrated that no one understands you or your culture. You may also be very tired from your first week or two of exploring, and this may lead to frustration when things are no longer so easy to get excited about.
The Adjustment Phase
You may still be a little tired and resentful of your host culture, but you’re coping. You’ve finally been able to establish a routine and have been able to make friends. You might be getting a better handle of the language and the layout of your new city, and you’re finding new activities that you enjoy. This phase is most definitely an improvement on the Crisis Phase, and you’re more than likely enjoying living abroad!
The Resolution Phase
This final phase may or may not occur for you, as different students adjust differently. In the resolution phase, you’ve accepted your host city as your new and/or current home, and you’re happy about it. You feel very confident speaking in the host language, and the host mannerisms may be becoming reflexive. This phase is more likely to occur if you’re abroad for a full academic year or longer.
Regardless of the type of culture shock you experience, there are a few things that you can do to help you adjust to your new home more quickly:
Establish a routine quickly
Decide when and how you’ll get to class, when and where you go to lunch, when and where you go grocery shopping, which buses to take, etc. Figuring out your routine early will give you a sense of security when you become frustrated or anxious.
This may seem obvious, and it may also seem harder than it looks. The advantage you have as a study abroad student is that it is likely that your peers will also be study abroad students, and they’ll need friends too. Additionally, you all have something in common- you’re studying abroad!
Don’t commit to a week-long holiday for Spring Break with your new friends just yet, but certainly get a group together for lunch or coffee to try to establish relationships. These are people that you’ll have memories with for the rest of your life, and you’ll want to get to know them early. If someone invites you to do something, always go the first time you’re asked no matter how tired you are. If you say no, it might be that you won’t get invited again, but if you go the first time, you can always say you’re too tired the second.
Write a blog or a journal about your experiences
This will help you in two ways: it will allow you to process your thoughts and reactions as you’re having them, and it will give you something to look back on when you get home and you’re really missing that time you were horse-back riding in a mountain in Italy. This will also allow you to keep friends and family updated without having to constantly Skype them, as you can just pass along your blog’s URL and mass-update.
Everyone at home will want to know how you’re getting on, but spending too much time talking to them will actually make your homesickness worse, and it will prevent you from making those crucial friends abroad.
If you’re having problems with homesickness or culture shock while you’re abroad, and can’t seem to overcome it, speak to someone about it. Almost all study abroad programs will have someone whose job it is to handle student problems and questions, and this person will be well equipped to help you. If you don’t know who this person is or you don’t feel comfortable speaking with them, try speaking to one of your professors, or a fellow study abroad student who could be feeling similar emotions. Someone at your host institution will be there to help you if you need it.
Immersing yourself in your host culture can be a challenge, especially if you’re experiencing particularly intense homesickness, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Remember that you’re living in a truly amazing place that deserves to be explored!
Try meeting local friends, talk to local shop keepers, bartenders, or coffee shop baristas to become acquainted with your host culture more quickly. If your host institution offers it, be sure to sign up for a language buddy. Even if you already know the language, having a language buddy is a great way to make a new friend, expand your social circle and learn a ton more about the culture.
Similarly, if your program offers you the option of a homestay or a dorm/apartment, choose the homestay. Living in a homestay is a great way to immerse yourself in your host culture almost immediately. You’ll also likely have a much better support system when living with a host family than you would if you were living by yourself in a dorm.
And lastly, have an open mind and try everything that you can. Have you heard that there’s a great mountain to hike right outside of town? Great, go hike it! Did you hear about a fantastic cafe in a small neighborhood in the city? Perfect, go grab some coffee. Every little thing you do to find local hot spots will bring you one step closer to cultural immersion. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t see the “major attractions” in your host city. What would living in Paris be without seeing the Eiffel Tower? But do all of these things in moderation, and add in a non-touristy thing for every tourist thing that you do – your experience will be much richer for it.
The academics at your host institution will likely be very different than what you’re used to at home. Make yourself aware of class policies early in the game, and you’ll do much better. Studying abroad is largely an experiential learning experience, both inside and outside of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t have any work to do. For example, in many European countries, the interactions between student and professor are much more formal than in the United States. It’s best to begin e-mails with “dear” instead of “hey” or “hi”, and make sure you use the correct greeting (Dr., Professor, etc.), as not doing so can be seen offensively. It’s also important to know exactly how many credits will transfer back to your home institution, how the grading will work, and if your grades will appear on your transcript/count towards your overall GPA.
Many study abroad programs are pass/fail, meaning that if you earn above a certain mark then you will simply receive the credits for the course, but the grade won’t count for anything else.
9. When You Return
Reflecting on your experience
Studying abroad will teach you a lot about yourself and the world around you. It will likely challenge your viewpoint on many topics, and hopefully, will have you considering hot issues from other perspectives. Formally reflecting on your study abroad experience is the best way to ensure that it has the biggest and best impact possible.
Besides keeping a journal or blog while you’re aborad, you may also want to consider joining an alumni program or becoming a peer advisor back at your home institution. Both of these options will give you the opportunity to continue talking about your experience even after you’ve returned. You’ll also be able to help new study abroad students find their own incredible experiences, which is a lot of fun.
No matter what you decide to do, just remember – studying abroad is likely to be one of the best travel decisions you’ll make!