For many students, going away to college is the first time that they will live away from their parents or hometown. University life affords freedom, independence, and an opportunity to gain life skills that will be used throughout life. However, while this is certainly a major event, getting the most out of your college experience may involve going beyond your university’s campus.
Off-campus volunteer and work opportunities may be the farthest you’ll want to venture from your college campus. But you may want to consider studying abroad.
Studying abroad offers a unique opportunity to grow academically, professionally, and personally while going on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. There are a number of other benefits to studying abroad; however, there are also numerous challenges. Consider the pros and cons, and decide if studying abroad may be right for you.
Why Should I Study Abroad?
1. Experience a Foreign Culture
It’s one thing to see a photo of Machu Picchu, or to read a travel memoir about the bustling streets of Mumbai. Visiting foreign lands in person, however, is an entirely different experience. When you study abroad, you participate in the day-to-day life of a new locale, gaining a first-hand understanding and new appreciation of the culture.
2. Improve Your Second Language Skills
You may already be fluent in a second language, or you might study abroad in one of the many countries where English is spoken as a first language. However, studying abroad can provide you with a perfect opportunity to learn a new foreign language.
Being surrounded by native speakers affords you the chance to immerse yourself in the language, which can expedite your retention and fluency. Furthermore, if you travel to a country in which the primary language is one you’ve studied in school, you can add to your vocabulary colloquial words and phrases that may not appear in the textbooks.
3. Explore Your Own Heritage
Students whose familial heritage stems from abroad will often choose to explore their ethnicity and ancestry. In fact, reports show that minority students benefit both personally and academically when they have studied abroad in the country of their family’s origin.
4. Pursue an Activity You Wouldn’t at Home
Studying abroad is a chance for you to be adventurous, explore the unknown, and try your hand at activities that may not be offered in your home state. For example, if you’re studying abroad in Argentina, you can try numerous adventure sports, from zip-lining, to rafting, to mountain biking. If you enjoy heights, you can try paragliding. No matter what you choose, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience.
5. Learn How to Communicate Across Cultures
In today’s increasingly global society, it’s important to possess the skills to communicate across cultures – and this means understanding more than just a different language. Studying abroad helps you become familiar with the customs and traditions of the country in which you are studying, in addition to the language. By interacting with locals, you can develop an appreciation for the culture and its differences from your own.
6. Become More Independent
Studying abroad removes you from the normal support network that you are accustomed to back home. While on the one hand, being away from friends and family can seem daunting, it is also a chance for you to hone your own skills and gain some independence.
Whether it’s washing your laundry or buying groceries, you will learn to take responsibility for your actions. When you return home, your increased independence will be very useful – it can help you in your job search, at home, or in your day-to-day routines.
7. Manage Your Own Finances
One major aspect of being an independent adult is having the ability to manage your own finances. Regardless of whether your study abroad program is financed by a scholarship, grant, or another source of income, chances are that it will be your responsibility to pay the bills.
Furthermore, living in a new country also forces you to learn to understand a new form of currency, and familiarize yourself with the various living expenses. Understanding how to manage your expenses will especially be beneficial when you no longer rely on the support of your family.
8. Increase Your Employment Prospects
Employers value prospective candidates with international experience, foreign language skills, and the ability to communicate across cultures. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in international relations, diplomacy, or government, these skills will be especially useful.
Use your experience studying abroad to expand your set of abilities, and make these a determining factor that will separate you from the others in a pool of applicants.
9. Form New and Rewarding Relationships
Without your regular support group of friends and family, you will be confronted with new situations on a daily basis. However, studying abroad offers you the chance to meet new people and form friendships that may last a lifetime.
Whether you’re living with a host family or in a student residence, make an effort to form relationships with those around you. Not only will you have someone around to console you when you are feeling homesick, but you will also get to know people that you can have fun with. Recreation is an important part of the studying abroad experience, and you will likely enjoy sharing your experiences much more than spending your time alone.
10. Network for Your Future
In addition to making friends, you can also form professional contacts while abroad. Generally speaking, course loads tend to be comparatively lighter while studying abroad, so this can be an ideal occasion to intern, work part-time, or volunteer while you’re studying.
Consult your college or university to see whether they help you find internships or work placements abroad. Sometimes, you can even get credit from your home institution. When you’re finished working abroad, be sure to ask for a recommendation letter to testify that you worked abroad, and to share with future prospective employers.
Challenges to Consider
Though there are a myriad of benefits to foreign study, consider some of the drawbacks before you decide whether it’s right for you:
- Homesickness Can Occur Frequently. If you have never spent much time far from home, this could be a serious issue. You may find yourself yearning for the people you left back home, and the less outgoing you are, the more of a problem this can become.
- Academic Programs Abroad May Be Less Rigorous. Of course, this comes down to where you currently study and the program in question. Ask other students who have participated in the program you’re interested in to see if it will be worthwhile from an academic standpoint.
- It May Be Difficult to Get to Know Locals. In some countries, the locals will be warm and inviting, while in others, it might take a little more effort to make friends. If you’re concerned, find out in advance how Americans are typically received and treated in the area.
- You May Experience Culture Shock – When You Return Home. Once you become used to a foreign environment, your home might actually seem foreign to you. This effect will be most notable when returning from countries where cultural differences from your home are numerous.
- Programs Can Be Expensive. While there are study abroad scholarship opportunities specifically designed for students who wish to study abroad, you may not be eligible. Is it worth racking up more student loan debt? If you don’t qualify for a scholarship, weigh the pros and cons to make the best decision, and be sure to expand your search – consult government-sponsored initiatives for further grants, if possible.
- Credits May Not Transfer. If you’re planning to conduct research abroad, be sure to mention it to your college or university, as you may be able to transfer credits to your home institution. However, credits may not always transfer. This may not matter to some students, but to others it could be vital – especially when you consider the financial costs.
Should You Study Abroad?
For those who have not traveled extensively, studying abroad may be an ideal opportunity to seek adventure with the support network of an established program. Students who wish to learn a foreign language – or develop existing foreign language skills – and immerse themselves in a new culture will also find it beneficial. Furthermore, students considering a career in international relations should definitely study abroad, as it can increase job prospects upon graduation.
In contrast, however, studying abroad is less suitable for students who have strong attachments to their hometown and are wary of being far apart from family and friends. Some universities also have strict requirements in place, restricting study abroad programs to students who meet a minimum GPA.
Lastly, it’s imperative that students who cannot afford to go abroad do not take on additional debt. The desire to travel abroad may be great, but it would be best to wait until you have the financial means to do so. You can stick to cheap international travel destinations, or perhaps someday become an ESL teacher abroad.
As a student, you are likely young and fairly unattached. When weighing the costs against the benefits, consider whether you’ll have a similar opportunity to travel abroad in the future. Chances are that now is the ideal time to go.
However, in spite of the many reasons to consider studying abroad, keep in mind the possible challenges and expenses, and carefully weigh your options before making a final decision. Furthermore, consult your advisors and professors, as well as friends and family, for advice – especially if they have participated in a similar program before.
Have you studied abroad? What tips would you suggest to make the experience, and the decision to go, easier?