Your college campus is a pinprick on a world map. On Earth, seven billion people have spread themselves out across nearly 200 countries and have learned to speak some 7,000 languages. If your college campus is giving you cabin fever, your school may allow you to join the 10% of students who study abroad (the statistic jumps to 15% if you look only at students attaining their bachelor’s degrees) at some point during their college careers.
What is study abroad?
The term “study abroad” refers to any educational experience that students have outside of their home countries. While it is always possible to study abroad in high school or earlier, the majority of students who do are in college. Some incoming freshmen decide to attend international universities from start to finish, and they receive their degrees from those schools. The traditional study abroad experience, however, is different.
The most common study abroad experience looks like this: Undergraduates enrolled in U.S. colleges typically complete one or two semesters’ worth of credits at universities abroad. They can do this any time between freshman and senior year, depending on policies at their schools. The credits they earn then transfer back to their home schools, where they will later return to finish their degrees.
How does studying abroad help me get the most out of my college experience?
- Take a break from campus. If, after a few semesters, the college bubble starts to stifle you, studying abroad may help you get out of that rut to meet new people, visit new places, and study new material.
- Take advantage of your financial aid. Your financial aid package—including federal and state aid—is often transferrable to a nondegree study abroad program. Depending on the aid you receive, a glamorous semester abroad could cost roughly the same as a regular semester in your college town.
- Take classes in your major. You don’t have to be a language or international studies major to get credit for courses you take abroad. Different programs cater to different majors. Your department chair or study abroad office can tell you how former students have fulfilled degree requirements in the past. Once you’re abroad, especially if you participate in a program through an institution other than your own, be sure to communicate with your home university about whether the classes that interest you can count toward your major’s requirements.
- Spend your weekends traveling. If you study abroad in Europe, take a cheap, quick flight or a hop on the Eurail train to visit neighboring cities. Students under 28 receive a 20% discount on a Eurail pass. Outside of Europe, you still have plenty of opportunities to travel domestically. Ask your host family or study abroad coordinator where the locals vacation.
- Make new friends. All of your friends don’t have to come from your college. In fact, studying abroad can lead to great friendships with individuals from all over the world. All of the students whom you meet will bring something new and different to the table, which can teach you about other cultures, make you more sensitive, and make you more well-rounded. Plus, who doesn’t want to have an international pen pal (and a standing invitation to your international friend’s home) when the study abroad experience is over?
How will studying abroad help me become a better candidate for jobs after graduation?
- Bolster your language skills. If you’ve never studied a language, now’s your chance. For those who have, immerse yourself in what you’ve been studying in the classroom and practice your conversation skills with native speakers. As you speak with more people—young and old, professors and friends—you will learn faster and expand your vocabulary, not to mention boost your confidence.
- Learn to adapt. Unless you’re a native speaker, you’ll probably flub on some pronunciations every now and then. Don’t worry; it’s good for you. It means you’re putting in the effort to connect with other people. It will also help you relate better to international students, foreigners, and other travelers. You’ll get a taste of how difficult it is to be in the minority, and you’ll become more understanding and patient because of it.
- Become more independent. Going to college was a huge step toward independence, but it’s nothing compared to moving to a different country. From scratch, you’ll have to navigate a foreign city, an unfamiliar health care system, and roundabout bus lines. You might have to call a plumber or find your way after taking the wrong subway. You can do it, but you’ll realize just how much you’ve been taking for granted in your comfort zone.
- Adopt a culturally sensitive viewpoint. By studying abroad, you’ll experience another culture more so than you ever would as just a tourist passing through town. Maybe you’ll have a host family, a Frisbee team, or a couple of professors who will introduce you to daily life in your host country. In contrast to flipping through a chapter in a guidebook, experiencing the country will paint you a nuanced picture of its politics, religion, history, values, etc.
- Reflect on your own culture. It’s hard not to compare your experiences abroad with similar ones you’ve had in the United States. In doing so, you’ll come to appreciate some aspects of your own culture and think critically about others.
- Put an edge on your résumé. Employers and grad schools look for candidates with extensive travel experience, which suggests they have broader perspectives, value diversity, and work well with people from anywhere. Speaking thoughtfully about your year abroad is a great way to give yourself a leg up in the job market.
Are there any downsides to study abroad?
- Not being able to work while abroad: Unless you have the proper visa, you probably won’t be able to work while you’re abroad. Of course, much of your financial aid package can be applied to the cost of your study abroad program, but it probably won’t cover everything. Students who usually depend on work-study or job income to help pay tuition may struggle to make a study abroad experience work with their budgets.
- More expenses than usual: Activities on your home campus are often free, sponsored by your college. You probably won’t find that abroad, and you may find yourself spending more on recreation than you’re used to. When you’re calculating your budget, be sure to factor in sightseeing, activities, and travel to nearby cities.
- Academic requirements
- Tedious credit transfer back to your home university: If your study abroad program isn’t sponsored by your home university, you must work with your academic advisor to design your schedule. You need to know if you’ll get credit toward your major for specific courses that interest you, and the answer isn’t always “yes.”
- Difficulty registering for next semester’s campus housing and classes: If housing and scheduling are hard to arrange when you’re on campus, imagine the difficulties you’ll face while you’re abroad: faulty internet connections, getting approvals for certain classes, not being able to tour apartments, and finding next semester’s roommates.
- Missing out on classes that are only offered at a certain time: One of the prerequisites or classes that you need for your major may only be offered one semester each year. If you study abroad that semester, will you have to wait until next year to take that course? How will that affect your anticipated graduation date
- Hurrying to fulfill required classes once you are back on campus: If you don’t earn many credits toward your major while you’re abroad, what will your schedule look like when you’re back on campus? Chances are, you won’t get to balance it with as many electives as you used to.
- Lifestyle changes
- Extensive trip planning: Arranging a study abroad trip isn’t easy, and you have a lot of time-consuming decisions to make. Where will you go and when? What type of program do you want? The planning process can take months.
- Spending time away from your family and friends: Homesickness is real, and while you’re away from home, you will miss out on some exciting things, like parties, family celebrations, and holidays. Even communication, like calling and texting, is more complicated. If there is an emergency, you or your family may not find out immediately.
- Culture shock: Adjusting to a new culture and language isn’t for the fainthearted. Depending on your destination, your lifestyle will surely change. Are you prepared to have more freedom than you did on campus? In certain destinations, you may have less freedom and confront some adversity, especially if you identify with a marginalized group.
- Language barriers: While immersing yourself in a culture that doesn’t speak your language is one of the fastest ways to boost your language skills, it can be scary and frustrating. You may feel like you have trouble communicating anything that can’t be explained with basic words, and if you’re naturally shy, this can be a painful experience. If you’re not enamored with the idea of speaking a foreign language, there are plenty of study abroad opportunities in English-speaking countries.
- Unfamiliar customs: Do you have to take your shoes off when you enter a home, eat with your hands, or switch to a plant-based diet? Is there a significant focus on religion where you hope to study abroad, or a lack of one? When you’re living in a new country, you must have a degree of flexibility. If you’re not someone who likes to try new things and you are someone who likes to follow a set routine, leaving the country for a semester or longer may not be the best choice for you.
- Independence: Yes, this is also a benefit to studying abroad, but learning to be independent is tough. You won’t be able to rely on anyone but yourself before you’ve had the chance to befriend your classmates and meet your professors or host family. No one will be able to make you go to class, help you if you’ve missed the bus, or hold your hand every step of the way. You must be confident that you can push through the unplanned obstacles that will crop up before you decide to leave your home country.
- Hard to leave at the end of the semester: After a whirlwind study abroad experience, it may be hard to pack your bags and get back to your home university. If that’s the case, it could take you a while to get back into the rhythm of campus. When you have to return to your comfort zone, you could be left feeling bored and apathetic.
Your international opportunities reach far beyond the possibilities available to you on campus. For some students, it’s a great experience, and for others, it’s not the right opportunity. Weigh your options before rushing to a decision.
If you are still interested in study abroad after considering the pros and cons, start dreaming and planning. Instead of rolling up to the dining hall for your usual turkey sandwich, you could be sampling extravagant dishes of bibimbap, arepas, and fried grasshoppers. Instead of taking the windy path behind campus, you could hike Machu Picchu or the Great Wall of China. If you’re ready to take a break from campus and venture into the great unknown, study abroad may very well be for you.
Page last updated: 10/2017