Studying abroad is the act of a student pursuing educational opportunities in a country other than one's own. This includes primary, secondary and post-secondary students. Students may pursue their entire degree abroad, or they may elect to leave their home country for an academic year, semester, summer or less.
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Why study abroad?
10 reasons why you should study in a foreign country
Have you considered studying abroad, but are not sure whether it's worth your time? If you ask anybody who has studied abroad, he or she will most certainly tell you that it is a life-changing experience and one of the most rewarding things he or she has ever done. Perhaps you're not certain what benefits you can reap from an extended stay in a foreign country. Here are 10 very excellent reasons why you should take the plunge:
Study abroad is the optimal way to learn a language. There is no better and more effective way to learn a language than to be immersed in a culture that speaks the language you are learning. You're surrounded by the language on a daily basis and are seeing and hearing it in the proper cultural context. Language learning happens most quickly under these circumstances.
Study abroad provides the opportunity to travel. Weekends and academic breaks allow you to venture out and explore your surroundings - both your immediate and more distant surroundings. Since studying abroad often puts you on a completely different continent, you are much closer to places you might otherwise not have had the opportunity to visit. Some more structured study abroad programs even have field trips planned in or around the curriculum.
Study abroad allows you get to know another culture first-hand. Cultural differences are more than just differences in language, food, appearances, and personal habits. A person's culture reflects very deep perceptions, beliefs, and values that influence his or her way of life and the way that s/he views the world. Students who experience cultural differences personally can come to truly understand where other cultures are coming from.
Study abroad will help you develop skills and give you experiences a classroom setting will never provide. Being immersed in an entirely new cultural setting is scary at first, but it's also exciting. It's an opportunity to discover new strengths and abilities, conquer new challenges, and solve new problems. You will encounter situations that are wholly unfamiliar to you and will learn to adapt and respond in effective ways.
Study abroad affords you the opportunity to make friends around the world. While abroad, you will meet not only natives to the culture in which you are studying, but also other international students who are as far from home as yourself.
Study abroad helps you to learn about yourself. Students who study abroad return home with new ideas and perspectives about themselves and their own culture. The experience abroad often challenges them to reconsider their own beliefs and values. The experience may perhaps strengthen those values or it may cause students to alter or abandon them and embrace new concepts and perceptions. The encounter with other cultures enables students to see their own culture through new eyes.
Study abroad expands your world view. In comparison with citizens of most other countries, Americans tend to be uninformed about the world beyond the nation's boundaries. Students who study abroad return home with an informed and much less biased perspective toward other cultures and peoples.
Study abroad gives you the opportunity to break out of your academic routine. Study abroad is likely to be much unlike what you are used to doing as a student. You may become familiar with an entirely new academic system and you will have the chance to take courses not offered on your home campus. It's also a great opportunity to break out the monotony of the routine you follow semester after semester.
Study abroad enhances employment opportunities. Did you know that only 4% of U.S. undergraduates ever study abroad? Yet, the world continues to become more globalized, American countries are increasingly investing dollars abroad, and companies from countries around the world continue to invest in the international market. Through an employer's seyes, a student who has studied abroad is self-motivated, independent, willing to embrace challenges, and able to cope with diverse problems and situations. Your experience living and studying in a foreign country, negotiating another culture, and acquiring another language will all set you apart from the majority of other job applicants.
Study abroad can enhance the value of your degree. While abroad, you can take courses you would never have had the opportunity to take on your home campus. In addition, study abroad gives your language skills such a boost that it is normally quite easy to add a minor in a language or even a second major without having to take many more additional courses after the return to your home campus.
Considering the Reasons to Study Abroad
After you've gotten through the first year at your home university, you probably feel like you finally know all the buildings on campus, can find your way around town, know which professors to avoid, which dining hall is busiest at lunch, and of course, have made plenty of friends. So why leave this cozy little environment you've created for yourself just to go back to being the new kid on the block? Because your experience abroad is definitely worth the few trials and tribulations of starting over!
Think of study abroad as just an extension of your studies at your home university. Your time away should be an integrated part of your four-year undergraduate academic plan. When you go abroad, you will likely take courses that, in some way, build on or add to the courses you are taking at your home university. Study abroad is also a great time to begin independent research projects. Increasing numbers of students conduct research abroad and then work with faculty members when they return to convert their projects into senior theses.
Ready, set, grow!
Studying abroad definitely challenges you on a personal level. Whether you consciously realize it or not, you develop a greater self-confidence, independence, and self-reliance. By the time you return home, you may feel like a super hero: You can do anything!
Studying abroad may be the first time you are truly away from home — all your familiar surroundings here in the U.S., as well as friends and family. While this isn't always easy, most students agree that the benefits of giving up your familiar environment for a short period of time far outweigh the reasons to stay at home. Believe it or not, if you immerse yourself in a new culture, experiment with new ways of thinking, or try a different way of living, you naturally experience some sort of personal growth. After you master your new culture and the abroad academic life, you will return home much wiser and probably slightly impressed with yourself for having had a successful time abroad.
Changing your perspective
If you go abroad with an open mind, then you're certain to return to the U.S. a more enlightened person. One of the major benefits of studying abroad is its ability to broaden your world understanding and perspective on just about anything. You gain a different view of international affairs, from politics to economics to social issues. You also return with a deeper understanding and respect for your host country, knowing how another culture approaches daily life and unusual challenges.
You may also return with a new appreciation for the U.S. Living in another culture can help you understand your own on a deeper level. You may return grateful for the way of life in the U.S., its political system, or its foreign or domestic policies. Through your interactions with your abroad professors, your new peer group, and other foreign or U.S. students on your program, you can find out what others think about the U.S. (and this is usually both positive and negative).
While abroad, a new academic interest or perspective on your major may emerge. Studying at an abroad university allows you to study subjects that aren't available at your home university. You also study familiar subjects but from a different cultural perspective. For example, if you study international relations in France, it will be from a European perspective. Alternatively, studying the U.S. and American history from a different country's point of view can be fun. And, of course, all your classroom learning is enhanced by living in your abroad location and interacting with host families, housemates, roommates, or friends who are native to your abroad country.
Jump-starting your career
Studying abroad typically gives your resume a nice boost and improves your post-graduate employment prospects, particularly if you're considering a career in business, international affairs, or government service. Nowadays, employers actively seek college graduates who have spent time studying abroad because they want employees with an international knowledge base as well as foreign language skills.
The same international skills that make you more marketable for employment are also valued by graduate schools. These skills include cross-cultural communication skills, analytical skills, teamwork, flexibility, an understanding of cultural contexts, the ability to adapt to new circumstances and deal with differences, a developed view of the world outside the U.S., independence, and self-confidence.
Experiencing a different education system
Institutions of higher education outside the U.S. function differently than what you're accustomed to. Even if your program is directed by a U.S.-based school, your experience can still differ because U.S.-based programs often employ local professors.
In the U.S., most students pay to go to college. It's kind of a pay-for-service model in which students pay for the education and in return expect their professors to conduct lectures, foster class discussion, and hold office hours, and so on. This isn't usually the case in other parts of the world. If students don't pay for school or if the government (maybe through taxes) subsidizes tuition, then students don't feel as entitled. The tables are turned. Students have the privilege of going to school and therefore, it is up to them to take responsibility for their own learning.
Abroad universities are much less focused on grades. They care more about learning to increase understanding and knowledge. Therefore, you can expect much more of a lecture format to your classes and not much (if any) class discussion or participation. You can also expect to have less one-on-one interaction with your professors. (Professors at your abroad university may not even be required to hold weekly office hours.) However, the flexibility of curriculums abroad often gives students at abroad universities more freedom to explore their own interests within a course than would be allowed or even feasible in the U.S.
The difference in set ups between your home university and your host university doesn't mean you should assume that academics are easier abroad.
All these differences don't mean that the education you receive while you're abroad is better or worse than the education you get at your home university — it's just bound to be different. If you don't like your abroad classroom or learning style, chalk it up to a learning experience. Accept the challenge to learn in a different way, in a different cultural setting.
Before you take the plunge, think about your own personal reasons for wanting to go abroad because when you return from studying abroad, you'll assess whether you achieved your goals or hopes for studying abroad. Whatever your reasons for studying abroad, make sure that they are not only attainable, but also positive. For example, learning a second language, studying about another culture, diversifying your studies, preparing for graduate school, or traveling to meet new people are all good reasons to study abroad.
Staying Safe While Studying Abroad
The first step to staying safe is becoming familiar with the area in which you live and go to school. Ask other students, campus security, your program director, or the International Student Office for local safety information.
- Find out which areas of your town or city are safe and unsafe during the daytime and at night. Avoid dangerous areas where you could become the victim of a crime.
- Don't use shortcuts, narrow alleys, or poorly lit streets.
- Try not to travel alone at night.
- Keep a low profile and try not to stand out as a foreigner or tourist. In most places, wearing tennis shoes, baseball hats, jeans, or sweatpants are dead giveaways that you're American. Observe the local standards of dress — and don't hang a camera around your neck.
- Never, ever discuss travel plans or personal information with strangers.
Aim to blend in. Speak the language of your host country instead of English. Also, speak softly. Americans tend to speak loudly and this attracts attention. Don't frequent American hangouts like McDonald's — pickpockets can linger around looking for unsuspecting American students?
Warding off pickpockets
When you're out and about in your host country, pay attention to your surroundings just as you would in any public place. Remember that crowded elevators, festivals, market places, subways, train stations, tourist sites, and marginal areas of cities are prime locations for thieves and scam artists. Beware of strangers who approach you offering bargains or to be your guide.
Petty theft is rampant in many countries, and foreigners are almost always a favorite target. Pickpockets often have an accomplice who jostles you, asks you for directions or the time, points to something spilled on your clothing, or otherwise distract you by creating a disturbance as the pickpocket runs off with your money. Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.
If you're confronted by a thief, don't fight back. Just give him what he asks for. Give up your valuables. Your money and passport can be replaced, but you cannot.
Use the following tips to keep yourself safe on the streets:
- When possible, ask directions only from individuals in authority.
- Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
- Learn a few phrases in the local language so that you can signal your need for help, the police, or a doctor.
- Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, host family, roommates, program director, and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
The U.S. Embassy is available to help you if you're the victim of a crime. Every embassy has an officer on call 24 hours a day to assist in an emergency and help you get in touch with medical care or police.
Staying safe aboard public transportation
As a student studying in a foreign country, you are probably not going to have access to a car. Wherever you're going, you'll likely be relying on your own two feet or public transportation to get you from place to place.
The consular information sheets on the State Department Web site list whether a country has a pattern of tourists being targeted by criminals on public transport in the "Crime Information" section. Even if your area isn't listed, always carefully watch your belongings while you travel.
In cities, taxis are often the safest way to travel at night, but remember to keep your wits about you. Take only those taxis clearly identified with official markings. Beware of unmarked cabs or drivers soliciting passengers in train stations or airports: They may take advantage of you or take you somewhere you don't want to go. Never get into a taxi if someone is already in the backseat. Never put your bags in the taxi before you get in — the driver could take off with your stuff! Try to become familiar with routes to and from your destination so that taxis don't take the longest and most expensive routes possible.
When going out, always take enough money for a taxi home.
Trains and buses
Public transportation may be a new adventure for you and can be challenging and difficult until you get used to it. If you're intimidated by the rules and routes, take a friend with you to show you the ropes your first time out. If you do venture out on your own, carry a map of public transportation systems with you until you are comfortable getting where you need to go. Plan your routes ahead of time, and make sure you know the fares and how to signal the driver to stop.
Passenger robberies along popular tourist routes on trains and buses are a serious problem, but you can protect yourself. Take a look at the following list for some tips:
- First and foremost, never accept food or drink from strangers when traveling on trains and buses. Criminals have been known to put drugs in food or drink offered to passengers, and then robs them while they're sleeping.
- Crime on trains and buses is more common at night and especially on overnight trains. You don't need to avoid such trips altogether, but do stay alert and in tune with your surroundings.
- Remember the following if you travel via train at night:
- Lock your compartment.
- If you are unable to securely lock your compartment, sleep in shifts with your traveling companions. If you're traveling alone, stay awake.
- If you must sleep and are traveling alone, tie down your luggage, strap your valuables to you, and sleep on top of them as much as possible.
- Never be afraid to alert train authorities if you feel threatened in any way during your trip. Extra police are often assigned to ride trains on routes where crime is a serious problem.
In some countries, entire busloads of passengers have been robbed by gangs of bandits.
Memorizing the rules of the road
Road rules and conditions vary widely by country and region and likely aren't what you're used to.
If you rent a car for a road-trip, make sure to take a friend with you (and a mobile phone if you have one) and follow these tips:
- Don't rent something exotic (like an SUV); choose a car that you see on the roads in the country you're in.
- Fully insure the car for the duration of your trip and make sure you have contact numbers for roadside assistance.
- Keep good road maps on hand.
- Ask your rental car agency for advice on avoiding robbery while visiting tourist destinations.
- Where possible, ask that markings that identify the rental car as a rental be removed, otherwise you're an easy target for thieves who prey on tourists.
- Make certain that the car is in good shape and recently serviced. When possible, choose a car with automatic door locks and power windows.
- Get a car with air conditioning so you can drive with the windows closed. Thieves can snatch purses and bags through open windows of moving cars.
- Keep car doors locked at all times. Wear seat belts.Keep bags and purses out of sight locked in the trunk.
- As much as possible, avoid driving at night.
- Don't leave valuables in the car.
- Don't park your car on the street overnight. If you can't park in a parking garage or other secure area, select a well-lit area.
- Never pick up hitchhikers.
- Don't stop to help strangers or accept help from anyone except authorized roadside assistance. Criminals may pose as stranded motorists seeking help. Or they may flag you down, ask for assistance, and then steal your luggage or car. Usually they work in groups; one person preoccupies you by chatting while the others rob you.
- Never put yourself into a situation in which you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. If the area where you planned to park doesn't feel safe to you, drive away instead.
According to the State Department, victimization of motorists has been refined to an art in many places frequented by tourists, including areas of southern Europe. Where this sort of crime is a problem, U.S. Embassies are aware of it and try to warn the public about the dangers. In some locations, these efforts at public awareness have paid off, reducing the frequency of incidents.
Carjackers and thieves operate at gas stations, in parking lots, in city traffic, and along the highway — basically, anywhere there are cars. In extreme instances, criminals may attempt to get your attention with abuse, either trying to drive you off the road or causing an "accident" by rear-ending you and creating a fender bender. Or in some urban areas, thieves don't waste time on ploys: They simply smash your car windows at traffic lights, grab your valuables or your car, and get away.
The bottom line is that it is simply better to avoid driving in a foreign country. If you must drive, drive defensively, and keep an eye out for potentially criminal pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders.
Evaluating a Program for Studying Abroad
After you've selected a variety of potential study abroad programs, you need to take a careful look at each program. Maybe you're wondering why you placed a particular program on your list of possibilities. Was it simply because the brochure looked cool? Be honest with yourself. Studying abroad is an important educational and financial investment that you're making in yourself!
The following sections cover the major considerations for evaluating study abroad programs. In addition to these, remember that cost, safety, and health are other important considerations.
Location, location, location! A program's location definitely has an impact on your decision. Deciding to study abroad is impossible without considering where in the world you want to go for a semester or year. And the options literally extend around the globe.
Western Europe is the most popular study abroad destination for U.S. students. In fact, two-thirds of all U.S. study abroad students go there, primarily because Europe has many extensive and well-developed study abroad programs. And yet its popularity doesn't mean Western Europe is the best place for you to study. Where you need to study depends upon personal, academic, and home-university considerations. Each town, city, country, region, and continent has something to offer. Although no one place is likely to suit all your desires, some will come close.
These days, students are diversifying, visiting regions other than Western Europe because of attractive academic, language, cultural, internship, and traveling opportunities. Consider programs in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, South America, the islands of the South Pacific, and the former Soviet Union. You can study rain forests in South America, politics in Eastern Europe, Hinduism in India, or the roots of African music in Nigeria.
Challenge yourself to explore a culture that may be radically different than your own — it's not only an invaluable learning experience, but you also gain a better perspective of your own beliefs and traditions through different and unfamiliar cultural lenses.
Seventy-five percent of the world's population lives in developing nations. How does that affect world politics and history? You probably don't know that U.S. trade with developing countries currently approaches 40 percent of all U.S. imports and exports. How are U.S. politics affecting these developing nations? You'd probably be surprised. Because today's world is global in nature, and almost without boundaries because of the Internet, being able to focus your knowledge of a developing nation or simply any nation other than your own may become a major career asset. What has colonialism done to the developing nation you visit? What languages are the citizens learning in the country where you're studying? What primary language is used in higher education institutions where you spent a semester or two?
Tracing your roots
Although some students go abroad to discover more about a culture that is not their own, some do the exact opposite. For example, students from Arabic-speaking families often study in the Middle East, and Hispanic students may select any of the countries where Spanish is spoken. Likewise, Jewish students may choose to go to Israel, African American students may seek out a program located in Africa, and Asian American students may look to programs in Asia. Students search for information about their own culture, ancestors, national heritage, or ethnic and religious identities. Seeking your own identity is another excellent reason for pursuing studies abroad, and your experience will be just as rewarding as students who study abroad to find out about others. The hope is that you find what you're searching for, deepen your understanding of yourself, and come home more connected with your background.
Initially, students in search of their backgrounds always are perceived and treated as Americans, regardless of their efforts to blend in, properly speak the native language, or even look like the local people. So, be wary; your assimilation efforts may not always work the first few times around.
Mousing between city or country digs
Do you prefer studying in the city, the country, or in the suburbs somewhere in between? All three locations have something to offer. A large city often is a mecca of cultural experiences and social opportunities. On the flip side, cities tend to be more expensive, impersonal, trendy, and busy. Sometimes cities fail to have much of a national identity and you need to venture out to the country to experience it. On the other hand, although a suburb or rural area is often more traditional and offers plenty of contact with local residents, you may go stir crazy, feeling confined in such a small place. Think about what type of residential area your university is in now and ask yourself whether you want to live somewhere similar or different? Sometimes a city mouse can use a break from the city life.
Double-dipping: Visiting two countries
Despite the benefits of being in one place for a while, you may prefer traveling to several places during the time you spend abroad. Perhaps glimpses of many cultures, countries, or regions can help you reach a different goal, perhaps discovering common themes or issues in a number of places or exploring different forms of government, education, or healthcare.
Although finding and being approved for a study abroad program is going to be easier when it's based in one specific location with occasional visits to other nearby cities, programs that involve a high amount of travel do exist. Such programs frequently use travel as a way of comparing and contrasting differences in various locales. Semester at Sea, for example, enables students to compare and contrast the oceanography of different places along the Atlantic coast of the U.S.
Measuring compatibility with your home school
Some study abroad programs dovetail nicely with your home university's schedule and academics better than others. You want to attend a foreign university where the academic calendar is compatible with your home university's academic calendar, particularly if you are only going for one semester. You want to be able to return to your home university at a convenient time, like at the start of a fall or spring semester.
If your abroad university schedule is such that you have a month or two or three of downtime before being able to go back to your home university, make sure you have a way of keeping yourself busy. For example, if your abroad semester goes from July through November, what are you going to do until classes start up again? Travel? You could return home and try and make some extra money at a part-time job.
Choose an institution abroad that is as academically rigorous as your home university. You'll need to check out whether your abroad university offers your major and what level courses you can to take in that field. If the abroad university is going to limit you to entry level or intermediate level major courses, you may end up bored. If it's important that you do some advanced work in your major while you're abroad, make sure you're allowed to enroll in advanced courses.
Weighing One Semester or Two When Studying Abroad
With the notable exception of universities that do not follow a semester schedule, most study abroad programs offer you a choice of studying away during the fall or spring semesters or a full academic year.
The most obvious difference between studying away for one semester or two is the length of time involved. Studying abroad for two semester's offers more options and more flexibility than studying away for only one semester, but that doesn't mean that studying abroad for a year is inherently better than for only a semester. Doing so merely gives you more time.
Going abroad for a full year also has its drawbacks, including being away from the comforts of home and the familiarity of your home university. You may also return and discover that you need to scurry to finish up coursework in your remaining time on campus. Or perhaps you were the only one in your friend group to go away for a full year and have returned to find you just don't seem to fit with the friends you had before you left.
Maybe for you, going away for one semester is enough time abroad. On the other hand, you may want to spend as much time as possible away and therefore a year for you is ideal. In addition, some universities, particularly the more traditional ones in the United Kingdom and Ireland, operate on a trimester system. So if you study abroad at one of these universities in the fall, your fall "semester" abroad could be as short as nine weeks.
Deciding whether to go abroad for one semester or two is a personal choice, and you need to make that decision based on your academic plans. Studying away from home for one and two semesters each has its pros and cons. Weigh them carefully and make the decision that's best for you. To help you choose, here's the lowdown on both options.
Swinging singles: One semester
- Reasons for studying away for one semester include any of the following:
- The number of core requirements you must fulfill or the amount of coursework required for your major allows you to go abroad only for one semester.
- You're a double major, and you find it more difficult to go away for a full year and still satisfy requirements for two majors.
- You declared your major late and have a significant amount of coursework left to complete.
- Financially, you can only afford one semester abroad.
- You get homesick easily.
- You play a sport or want to run for student government and, therefore, need to be at your home university campus during a particular semester.
Never fear! If you choose to study abroad for one semester, you still can
- Benefit from studying abroad
- Improve your language skills
- Learn about a new culture
- Find time to travel
You need to realize, however, that in one semester your time abroad is limited. Take advantage of any and all opportunities presented to you. Try new foods and force yourself to speak the language of your host country. You need to make an extra effort to be outgoing and make friends with natives as soon as possible. Join clubs and attend social events as much as possible; you don't have time to sit at home and watch the television.
If you only have one semester to study abroad, carefully research your country and region and make a list of things that you want to accomplish, places you want to visit, or experiences you want to have during your semester before you even arrive at your abroad destination. This small amount of planning keeps you from wasting a single second of your time abroad.
Double your pleasure: Two semesters
If studying abroad has been part of your college plan for a while, you may be able to go abroad for two semesters, which means that you fulfilled, or know exactly how you plan to fulfill, all your academic responsibilities for graduation.
Spending more time in your host country usually ensures that you'll
- Make friends with native students, get to know your classmates (especially if you're in courses that last a full year), join sports teams, clubs, societies, and so on. Although you may feel like an outsider at first, after a few weeks, you'll be just like everyone else.
- Become fluent, or nearly fluent, in a foreign language. Practice makes perfect and a year gives you plenty of practice functioning in another language.
- Have plenty of time and opportunity to travel. Most likely, your host university will break between semesters for a week or more. Being away for a year guarantees you at least two extended breaks for travel. You won't have to squeeze long travel itineraries into long weekends or skip classes to travel.
- Become an expert on your host university's town or city. Knowing your way around the city will become second nature. You'll develop favorite spots for a cup of coffee, buying books, meeting up with friends for a pint — just like you have at home.
- Experience a year's worth of culture. Two semesters means you're abroad for nine or ten months. Thus, you'll get to see holiday celebrations and traditions that occur throughout the year.
- Adopt culture. More time away equals more time for developing the habits, speech patterns, or customs of your host country. You'll get used to things like having a siesta (nap) every afternoon, drinking tea instead of coffee, not going to the library on the weekends, or calling soccer "football." The longer you're in a country, the more you can incorporate the culture into your everyday life, without even realizing it in some cases. You may never be able to get through an afternoon without a cup of tea or a nap again!
An added bonus to studying abroad for two semesters is that you can often spend two semesters in two different places, if that's what you'd like, Of course, doing so means filing two sets of study abroad paperwork (including applications), packing up, moving, and then reestablishing yourself in a new city. But if you want to go two places, improve your language skills in multiple languages, and you're up for yet another adventure, this option may work for you.