5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Study Abroad Experience
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For the past 15 months, I’ve shared expertise gained through 15 years of backpacking with points and miles. And studying abroad is one of the first adventuress that really ignited by passion for travel.
Originally, I wanted to explore the reasons why students should study abroad during college. But I realized many of these arguments are well-known: discovering new cultures, gaining global perspectives, enhancing foreign language skills and forming deep bonds with people from different backgrounds.
Ask anyone who went to college about their greatest experience and, for those who studied abroad, that’s usually the highlight. It’s probably one of the surest bets for a lifelong, valuable experience you can find as part of a higher education.
So, why is studying abroad still relatively uncommon? According to the Open Doors annual report, only about 16% of college graduates studied abroad during their undergraduate career.
What happens is, despite high-level support, students rarely find a college curriculum that specifically includes studying abroad. Incoming freshmen receive a four-year outline for their declared major, and none of the semesters feature classes offered at a university in Prague, or Barcelona, or Rome. Students then get focused on their curriculum, with a secondary intention of studying abroad, but then the years fly by and it never happens.
If you’re a student, here are five tips to make sure you don’t miss out on the study abroad experience. And, if you’re a parent, consider encouraging your child to prioritize travel as part of their academic career.
1. Make Studying Abroad a Priority
If you want to study abroad during your college experience, set the intention that you will study abroad, and perhaps pick the semester, year or summer you will do it. Then, line up your class schedules around your study abroad semester.
This often means loading up on your major core classes during semesters on campus. Classes abroad rarely fulfill core class requirements, so studying abroad often ends up being a semester of electives. Make sure you have some saved up.
If you meet with a counselor, make it clear you are going to study abroad and when you are doing it, and he or she will help you organize your class schedules around that.
Once you set the intention to study abroad, stick to it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s happening at school and not want to leave. Afraid you’ll miss out on something happening at school? You’ll miss out on far more by not studying abroad.
2. Take Your Time
Even if you aren’t planning on studying abroad, I want to dispel one of the greatest myths of college education: There is no such thing as graduating “on time.” You either graduate, or you don’t.
Prospective employers care much more about every other part of your resume than the difference in years between your high school and college graduation dates.
When I started stressing out about taking an extra semester to graduate, my counselor casually mentioned that four and a half years was the average length for graduation in my major. Still, every official curriculum listed a four-year program.
Sure, there are benefits to graduating in four years or fewer, such as less tuition and a jumpstart on a career or further education. But don’t let any of those considerations keep you from studying abroad if it’s important to you.
3. Visit the Study Abroad Office
The friendly people at your college’s study abroad office are your allies in making a study abroad program work for you. They will help you choose a program and line up classes that work with your curriculum. But most importantly, they’ll support your desire to make it happen. Many employees are former study abroad students who will share their tales. Be sure to visit this office often and make friends with them.
Additionally, seek out upperclassmen and graduates who studied abroad. Talk to them for ideas, logistics for making it work and inspiration.
4. Be Realistic About Finances
Another common misconception is that studying abroad is too expensive. Programs vary widely in cost, and there are grants and scholarships available exclusively for study abroad programs. My summer abroad program in Buenos Aires, for example, included airfare, room and board, and was cheaper than summer tuition would have been at my in-state university!
Once again, talk to the folks in your school’s study abroad office to get prices for specific programs and learn about any available financial aid. They are advocates who will work with you to find a way to pay for the program you’re passionate about.
If you have a lease on an apartment or house on campus and are planning to study abroad for a semester, find a student that is studying the opposite semester of that year and simply sublease to them. Put the word out to friends, and the study abroad office can also help match you with someone.
5. Consider It an Investment
Too often, studying abroad is seen as a fun add-on to the college experience. Unless you are studying language or international studies, some students believe the experience won’t help them advance toward a career.
But, at the very least, your study abroad experience will stand out on a resume — after all, only one in six graduates can boast about it. And many companies actually desire employees with international experience. According to a study for the Future of International and Foreign Language Studies conference, 39% of companies polled reported, “They have failed to fully exploit international business opportunities in the past five years due to lack of internationally-competent personnel.”
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