Whether you study abroad for a few weeks, months, or longer, you are almost certain to discover innumerable, invaluable things about the world, its people, and yourself.
Though you might not be climbing onto that Prague-bound plane for a while yet, you can start getting excited about studying abroad now—perhaps even make it a part of your college search, as you consider and compare schools’ study abroad offerings.
But what is study abroad all about? Seeing historical places? Experiencing different cultures? Eating lots of delicious street food? Beyond visiting a new place and meeting new people, there are many benefits to participating in a study abroad program. They’re also largely intangible—but often life changing:
- Learn foundational skills like adaptability, problem solving, communications
- Develop networking and career connections
- Experience a global marketplace
- Gain confidence and self-awareness
- Expand comfort zone
- Explore cultural/family background
- Broaden perspective
- Earn credit, particularly in foreign culture classes
- Boost future résumé
Not only do students return with a better sense of the world’s cultures and their own, by comparison, but they gain more confidence, tolerance, flexibility, and understanding of different values and lifestyles, says Shaik Ismail, Director of International Programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.
Ismail says a recent survey of study abroad alumni revealed that “nearly 90% secured a job within the first six months after graduation; 50% felt the overseas experience helped them get their first jobs; 84% felt that studying abroad helped them build valuable job skills such as foreign language skills, cultural training, tolerance for ambiguity, adaptability, communication, and more; [and] 90% got into their first- or second-choice graduate or professional school.” So while you’re getting to know the best sidewalk banh mi vendors in Hanoi, you’re also building a foundation for an exceptional future. Not a bad deal, right?
Deciding on a program: where—or why—to go
You’re already considering a bunch of different facets of the college decision: location, majors, extracurriculars, and tons more. But if studying abroad is important to you, it should join the ranks of your other criteria. “You may want to assess the policies and the degree to which your chosen college supports the experience,” says Helena I. Kaufman, the Director of Off-Campus Studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. Go to school websites and check out the opportunities and resources they have available. Is there a variety of study abroad choices and resources? Do a significant percentage of students participate?
“Is study abroad folded into or covered by their college tuition? Or are there some additional costs associated with it? Will financial aid carry?” Kaufman asks. “Get a sense of what it will cost.” These things might indicate the ease of studying abroad and support available on campus. You can ask about study abroad during orientations for accepted, potential, and enrolled students as well; many colleges even have special sessions devoted to their study abroad programs.
Kaufman says student face two main difficulties in their quest to study abroad: the financial burden and the credit transfer/graduation requirements. She recommends learning your school’s policies on these two fronts as soon as possible. For example, if your classes abroad cannot be applied for credit toward your major, you may need to make up those credits elsewhere—usually via additional classes back on the home campus, which means more time and tuition.
“We always advise our prospective students and first-year admits to begin preparing for study abroad during their first week at the college. During their first meeting with their faculty advisor, they should begin planning on how to fit in a semester or year abroad in their degree program,” Ismail says. “Many semester abroad experiences can fulfill majors and minors, as well as the general education requirements so that students can graduate within four years.” Ismail also recommends students start taking requisite language classes early on, as most language-centric programs require at least two years of classes.
You are sure to encounter lots of information as you search for the right program; you may even feel bombarded by options, even if you’ve narrowed your search down to a number of schools or countries. “What do you choose?” Kaufman asks. “The important thing is to ask yourself what kind of experience you’re looking for.”
Programs even within the same country can have very different designs, features, and goals, Kaufman says. “You really have to get at what it is you want to do. Is cultural immersion important to you, speaking the language most of the time when you are studying abroad? Is it field studies?” she asks. “Do you want to connect with different sections of society, for example, by having an internship or volunteer opportunity?” Once you’ve decided that you want to return home with a firm grasp of a new language, some volunteer experience, and an internship, then you can hone in on the ideal location and program to achieve those goals.
Scott B. Manning, Director of Cross Cultural Programs at Susquehanna University, agrees: consider how study abroad can impact your life, résumé, and more. Don’t get hung up on the where. He mentions students who reach an early decision about studying abroad (“I’ve got to go to Ireland!”). But at the end of the day, “almost nobody ever regrets where they go,” he says. The biggest mistake is not exploring your options.
“Where would you never consider going?” Manning asks. Think of a challenging but “doable” place, and come up with a strategy for getting there. Study abroad is an opportunity to go some place you wouldn’t necessarily go on your own, and you’ll have a network of support in your travel preparations that you probably won’t have again later in life.
Then there’s the issue of how long your trip should be. Again, “it depends on your goal,” Kaufman says. For example, if you want true cultural immersion or language fluency, one week isn’t going to cut it. “You really want to have time to be able to go through different stages of transition, to adapt, to take advantage of local culture,” Kaufman says. The ideal seems to be spending a full semester abroad at a minimum, the entire junior year abroad if possible. Students can get the full immersion experience by enrolling directly into foreign universities as well.
However, many college classes have corresponding trips abroad, like science courses with two-week field experiences, where they complete specific projects, almost like a lab component. The study abroad experience may be shorter, but it’s carefully planned. “In that case, I think the two-week experience can be very rich and can really be perfectly designed to meet your goals,” Kaufman says.
Manning advises going for as long as you can, whether that’s shorter or longer than you originally anticipated. Don’t think you’re “doing it wrong” if you don’t go for an extended period, either. Even a short trip is better than none at all. “It’s really a matter of fitting it in,” he says.
“We do not discourage students from participating in programs shorter than a semester, although we try to impress upon them the value of longer term study—the opportunity to be immersed in language and culture, homestay experience, opportunity to make lasting friendships, gain proficiency in language, possibility to engage in an internship or volunteer experience, time to do personal travel during breaks,” Ismail says. He notes that preparing for stays of different lengths isn’t really that different, beyond perhaps needing a stronger grasp of the language and a familiarity with the university system.
What if at the end of the semester or even year-long adventure you find that you would rather stay, turning your host country into a temporary (or permanent) home? Ismail says students need to figure out the work or volunteer visa requirements first. He recommends students connect with organizations that coordinate work or volunteer opportunities abroad as well. “There are also organizations that seek those who want to teach English abroad,” Ismail says. “Each foreign embassy has an educational/cultural office that can offer assistance. In addition, there are familiar things like Fulbright, Truman, Rhodes scholarships for engaging in research abroad.”
Preparation: costs, visas, and more
Planning your trip may be a little complicated, but don’t worry! Kaufman says schools have very high standards for preparing students for studying abroad; it’s simply a matter of following the given instructions! But between the forms you’ll need and other considerations, it also takes time, especially if you’re thinking about studying abroad as an underclassman. Not many institutions allow freshmen to study abroad, but if that’s on your bucket list, you will need to start preparing as soon as possible! Because there are so many things to consider and official documents to prepare, the more you know—and the sooner you start—the better.
Read the materials on reading lists and attend the pre-departure orientations. (Luckily, technology has made it easy to do so, with many schools offering things like webinars and online tutorials.) Pay attention to the advice you receive; those that don’t tend to regret it, Kaufman says. “All you have to do is not ignore the deadlines, to really pay attention, and to follow the trajectory of the pre-departure process!”
However, while following the basic guidelines will help you get there and back, “you want to go a little further,” Kaufman says, “learning more about the country you’re going to.” Read up on its political system, history, and current events. Make an effort to be able to name its president, prime minister, or equivalent. “Having that jumpstart will really go a long way in cultural integration and the transition, not to speak of very practical things,” Kaufman says.
Okay, this is where it starts to get pretty technical. Once you know where you’re going, take a look at the U.S. State Department’s country breakdown. There, you’ll learn about things like entry and exit requirements for U.S. citizens, health and safety issues, and more. Then you can visit your country’s consulate or embassy to request or download a visa application.
Again, you should have guidance from your school throughout this process, but as a general introduction, here are some of the more technical things you can expect:
- Applications: You may need to apply for your school’s program in addition to signing up for it. Either way, you will most likely need to be in good academic standing, perhaps meeting a GPA requirement.
- Transportation: Primarily, flights. They tend to be expensive, but be sure to check if travel expenses are included in your scholarships or tuition. Also, try to book your tickets as soon as possible. Depending on how long you stay, you may have more or less flexibility regarding departure dates; if you book them in advance, see if they are changeable. If not, how much is the fee? And speaking of fees, keep in mind that many airlines not only charge bag fees but overweight bag fees as well. Plus, will you have enough room for all those souvenirs?!
- Passport: If you don’t already have a passport, you’re going to need one! Since there are no time restrictions on this official document (unlike the student visa) it’s an easy one to take care of ahead of time, if you’re able. The U.S. State Department offers a handy guide.
- Visa: From country to country, visa requirements vary, so it’s important that you confirm the exact items you’ll need to obtain one for your destination (if you need one at all). In general, you’ll need the following: declaration of finances, a letter from the sponsoring institution, “biometrics” (a.k.a. fingerprints), your passport, and another passport-quality photo. You’ll find plenty of guides to obtaining a student visa online (the State Department has a guide for this too), and likely through the study abroad office at your school as well. If you have any questions, reach out to your school’s administrators for help!
- Medical requirements: These, like visa requirements, are often specific to the country in question; as soon as you know where you’re going, check out the Center for Disease Control’s general travel health recommendations for your country and determine any necessary medical documentation, like vaccinations or immunizations, you’ll need. Health insurance is another important aspect; if you’re not covered, for whatever reason, consider buying a plan—it’s good to have that safety net should something happen to you while you’re traveling.
Visa processing times vary, and passports take about six weeks as well, so you’ll want to send in your applications well in advance. It also helps to keep track of the dates you completed and mailed documents in a spreadsheet, and be sure to keep digital or hard copies of everything you submit!
Getting there: when in Rome (wherever you roam)
So you determined your goals. You found the perfect program in the perfect place. You even flew across an ocean or two. Now you’re in your host country, excited to be there, happy about each new discovery. But then, suddenly, everything starts to feel . . . off. Perhaps you can’t sleep, you’re unhappy, you miss home. These are all common symptoms of culture shock, and it’s important to familiarize yourself with them before going abroad. Kaufman calls this “packing your mind.” It encourages students to learn about the transition, culture shock, and the normal peaks and valleys of emotion and even physical reactions they might experience, so they’re not blindsided by these feelings later on. “When these things happen, you can be a little better prepared,” she says. “You can anticipate it.”
Yet again, culture shock is part of all those pre-departure orientations, where you should learn strategies to help yourself overcome it and enjoy yourself again. And don’t worry too much about culture shock in general; it’s totally normal, and often, all it takes it getting involved in activities around you to shake it off.
Kaufman recommends checking out the University of the Pacific’s interactive guide, “What’s Up With Culture?” The site features tons of advice and real-world student experiences. For example, one young man staying in Madagascar learned an unexpected lesson about using the bathroom. He went outside his host family’s home to pee, which in itself is a totally acceptable practice—except for the fact that he went to the west side of their hut to do it, and the west side of the living area is considered the sacred resting place of the souls of the family’s ancestors! The family quickly informed him of the distinction. Lesson learned: always pee toward the east in Madagascar!
It’s often from those surprising discoveries that the most learning takes place. Those cultural nuances are extraordinarily broad in scope too: facial expressions, gestures, art, values, holiday customs, food and eating habits, religious beliefs, relationships, concept of modesty, personal space, social etiquette, work ethic, and more!
“Knowledge is power,” Kaufman says. “The more you know about the culture, about the customs, the less likely you are to make mistakes in your behavior and maybe even putting yourself in danger.” Most assaults and robberies occur while students are intoxicated, Kaufman notes, and with different legal drinking ages abroad, students may find themselves in extremely unfamiliar situations. But knowing the risks—and subsequently avoiding them—is half the battle. Observe locals to see what’s appropriate, and go with the flow. Listen to your host family and/or RAs too.
In addition to knowing how to conduct yourself in the country, you should also develop an idea of what you want to do and see when traveling. It’s all about making the most out of your time there, and it’s hard to do that when you know little about the country.
But perhaps the biggest mistake a student studying abroad can make is squandering the opportunity. “Even the best-designed program is not designed to give you the experience on a plate,” Kaufman says, and students often don’t realize they need to be proactive until it’s almost over. “You need to engage. You need to make things happen.” Join sports teams, volunteer with local charities, hang out with your host family—just put yourself out there!
“When students take things for granted and don’t take the pre-departure orientation and preparation seriously, they tend to find themselves in challenging situations,” Ismail says. “For example, if they are going to an English-speaking country, some students tend to view their host country as similar to the U.S.; they don’t take the time to learn about the cultural and societal values, lifestyles, and mores of their host country.”
It’s only natural for students to feel uneasy when they first study abroad, especially in a non-English-speaking country or where they are a visible minority, Manning says. Consequently, they tend to seek out other Americans and American-friendly things . . . but that doesn’t mean they should! “The point of it is to be uncomfortable,” he says. “You need to take care of yourself, but you need to be doing things that take you of your comfort level.” Learning how to navigate new, weird, wonderful situations is a valuable skill—one of many you’ll acquire while studying abroad that will stick with you long after you return home.