When studying abroad, the location or the type of program doesn’t seem to matter all that much—it’s the experience. And among most study abroad students, there seems to be one common denominator: a successful academic and cultural experience.
Why study abroad?
As Director of a short-term study abroad program and Assistant Dean for Study Abroad Programs, I’m always surprised by the undergraduates’ unanimous reaffirmation of the critical role study abroad plays in their education and personal lives. Returnees are the strongest endorsement for the importance of this once-in-a-lifetime experience that encourages both a student’s personal and academic growth.
On a personal level, study abroad gives students the opportunity to challenge themselves outside of their comfort zones, meet new and exciting people from different backgrounds and cultures, and develop lifelong friendships. Academically, while they are earning college credits and satisfying major, minor, or distribution requirements, they have a more important advantage of a hands-on experience where learning can take place both inside and outside the classroom. As they deepen ties with their hosts, they are introduced to life from a different cultural perspective, which permits them to become more tolerant of other cultures and appreciate their own culture as well.
If you are reading this article, you have probably considered studying abroad or you have actually taken the initial step of speaking to a study abroad advisor to gain more information. Congratulations on your decision! You are looking ahead to a week, month, or semester filled with adventures, ups and downs, surmountable challenges and frustrations, cross-cultural learning, new friendships from all over the world, a variety of hands-on experiences, and perhaps the most exciting period of your life—one that you will never forget.
Once you have made the decision to study abroad, one of the most important things to do is to prepare. You should never underestimate the critical role that pre-departure preparation plays on the success of your semester abroad. Unfortunately, American university students do not have the best reputation abroad, and in many countries they are viewed as loud, rude people who enjoy partying and drinking to excess. Pre-departure preparation is vital to offset this stereotyped behavior, contributing to the quality, richness, and productivity of the study abroad experience.
Preparation during the pre-departure period is twofold: student-based research and college- or university-sponsored initiatives. Prior to your study abroad experience, you should research the host city’s culture and people. Become familiar with the location of the local U.S. consulate in your host city and register with the nearest American embassy or consulate. Read the consular information sheets and travel warnings (www.travel.state.gov) for your host country or any other country you are hoping to visit.
Familiarize yourself with the laws and customs of the host city/country. If you did not study the target language, at least become familiar with key words and phrases so that once abroad, you can communicate on a basic level. You may be surprised to see how people in the host country appreciate their language being spoken. In addition to learning about the host culture and people, it helps to know the current political situation as well. You will find youth in other countries are politically savvy and engaged and will seek you out to discuss American politics, especially as they affect foreign countries. One of the biggest frustrations that you will face once abroad is the cultural differences, and you may even experience what is commonly referred to as “culture shock.” Anticipate this in your pre-departure preparation; identify and consider your goals for the experience abroad.
Getting the support you need
Several questions or concerns come to mind: What do you aspire to learn from the experience? What skills do you want to develop? How do you hope to change as a result of the experience? How will you immerse yourself in the host country’s culture? How will you make the best of this experience?
In addition to student-based research with respect to the host country city, university-sponsored initiatives can provide you with a number of different resources, most importantly program-specific meetings and pre-departure orientation sessions. Foremost, program-specific meetings, which are generally mandatory for all students going to a specific location, disseminate critical information regarding lodging accommodations, meal plans, cultural excursions, independent travel, and other important concerns. These four or five meetings also serve as a social venue during the semester prior to studying abroad, allowing participants to meet others who will be sharing the same experience. Students begin to bond at these meetings as they explore different aspects of the particular program and make decisions regarding what cities to visit during independent travel, how much money to bring, and what they would like to do in
the evenings or during free time.
There are usually previous participants that help students with their questions and concerns. These students are eager to share their perspective on what it’s like to live and study abroad. The exchange between previous and current participants encourages excellent dynamics as they examine cross-cultural differences such as etiquette, meals, communication, gender roles, and the importance of family and friends. This exchange encourages a better understanding of differences in the host city, which makes an easier adjustment for you and others in your group.
University-sponsored pre-departure orientation sessions—which generally take place toward the end of the semester—close the pre-departure preparation and include a general session, cultural awareness session, and parent session. At the general session, school administrators, program directors, participating faculty, and previous participants address critical concerns such as student behavioral expectations, threats to a student’s health and safety, and consequences of negative behavior. At the cultural awareness session, cross-cultural differences, culture shock, and successful adjustment are addressed by faculty, administration, and, most importantly, by previous participants.
Your parent/guardian’s support of studying abroad is critical to your success as well. Parents/guardians are encouraged to work with their students and assist in their pre-departure preparation, especially in influencing good behavior and choices abroad. In addition, parents/guardians can discuss health and safety issues, as well as behavioral expectations with you. Your school will likely invite and encourage parental attendance and participation at program and university-sponsored meetings, so ask your parent/guardian(s) to become actively engaged.
You may not be aware of this yet, but your decision to study abroad will have an enormous impact on your personal, academic, and professional life. Use the time prior to this experience to fully prepare for the journey ahead!