When students attend open houses and orientation, studying abroad is always a popular topic. Everyone dreams of adventure in far off lands. There isn’t much debate online about the benefits of studying abroad. You’ll find an overwhelming bounty of articles expounding on the many benefits of spreading your wings. While they are harder to find, there are some people who don’t think studying abroad is a good investment of your time. We’ll steer clear of the debate about the merits of studying abroad, but once you’ve made that decision, what are the things you need consider.
To help us figure this out, we’ve asked Ms. Hannah Farrar from The University of Colorado Boulder to give us some of the details. She studied abroad in Senegal and is currently an Education Abroad Program Manager at the university. Ms. Farrar helps students navigate the study abroad process – she’s got us covered.
The first and most important thing you need to know once you’ve decided to pursue this adventure is that your school will offer lots of help. Most students think of small or private colleges when it comes to studying abroad – and in fact, the top schools for study abroad programs do fall into those categories. But major universities have the same programs and many times have more support resources making the process just as easy as a smaller school.
A simple web search will get you in touch with the study abroad office; you can also find study abroad tables at campus info fairs. Getting started is the hardest step but if you feel a little overwhelmed Marissa Casey, a junior Public Relations major at CU Boulder has some advice: “DO IT. JUST DO IT. Studying abroad was literally the best experience of my entire life. You will learn so much.”
After you’re in contact with the study abroad office, they’ll likely recommend (or require) that you learn the basics of the process. This can be through a face-to-face session or through a short online video lesson. Ms. Farrar told us that these mini-lessons cover the basics; like academics (how courses are evaluated for credit), finances (cost & financial aid), and the basic types of programs available (yearlong, semester, summer programs, internships, field studies).
Exchange or Program
Ms. Farrar also explained that there are two kinds of study abroad services offered by universities. The first is student exchange. Exchanges are when your college has a specific relationship with a foreign college. Because of this one-to-one relationship, direct exchanges have fewer options in terms of school choice. Exchanges are great for a more independent, embedded cultural exchange. At most large schools, the tuition will be the same for an exchange but the housing costs may be different.
The second type is going through a study abroad service provider. These study abroad service providers offer programs at most colleges and universities. If you’re considering a service provider, you can check their reviews too. The costs for these will vary. Ms. Farrar told us that the service provider programs are great for students worried about language barriers, and who want to meet students from all over the world (not just the host nation).
According to Farrar the main difference between an exchange and service provider program is the level of support that students receive with exchanges offering less support and programs offering more. When selecting between the programs Marissa Casey, who recently returned from studying abroad in Europe, thinks students should “Do as much research as possible to find the best place for you. If you want to learn a language and truly get to know the culture then absolutely live with a host family, if you just want to have a great time abroad and get to know people and learn things, then live in student housing.”
Getting back to cost, you may not need to worry about paying the costs directly to the international university. Ms. Farrar explained that most colleges will bill you just like any other semester. This is great because it simplifies the process and also allows your financial aid to be applied to your study abroad program. Your school should provide a cost comparison so that you can select a program that fits your specific budget. Your parents will probably be concerned about the cost so getting all the info ready for them will help you have that conversation.
Marissa Casey echoed that telling us that students need to “make sure you have all of the finances laid out in front of them (your parents). I did a comparison to everything that they pay for at CU vs. the whole cost of the program and it ended up being really similar to a semester at CU.” Of course, your parents might be just as excited about studying abroad as you. Sarah Rooney, a junior at CU Boulder told us that her “parents were really supportive and wanted me to go abroad before I had even decided to go!”
Once you’ve reached out to your campus study abroad office; you’ve completed the basic training; you’ve decided if you want an exchange or service provider program; and you;ve figured out the costs; what’s next? Now it’s time to select a specific program. The most important part of selecting your program is your major and specific course requirements. You don’t want to have an amazing experience abroad and get back to campus only to find that your graduation date just moved back one semester!
To avoid this, a study abroad adviser will help you find a program specific to your major and course requirements. Your study abroad office website should have a search feature that lets you start figuring out which countries and schools fit within your academic goals. If you have a technical major (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) then you may have more limited options when selecting a program. Make sure you talk with your academic adviser and your study abroad adviser about your goals and plans.
When it came to getting credit Marissa Casey actually got more than she originally thought she would: “Meet with your advisor multiple times before AND AFTER you go abroad because I was only expecting to get credit for 1 class and ended up with 3 or 4 counting directly for my degree.”
After you’ve found a program that meets your academic requirements, you can think about the fun stuff – like the type of experience you want. Ms. Farrar gave us lots of things to consider when selecting a program. If you know a foreign language, visiting a country that speaks that language will be fun because you can go out and do more without worrying about the language barrier. Experiencing new cultures is the major draw for most students. Differing world views and customs will make your semester abroad amazing but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into before you go. Are you looking for a more laid-back experience or academically intense, urban or rural, etc?
Talk to your study abroad adviser about what you’re looking for and also do your own research about the cultures. Ms. Farrar told us that your friends plans may also impact your decision. If you go abroad with your friends, you’ll have some familiarity and comfort. If you want to force yourself out of your comfort zone, then it may be best to travel without that existing friendship structure. The language, the culture, the locations, the friendships – it’s going to change your life in the best way possible.
When we asked Marissa Casey about her best experience abroad, she told us “I had way too many ‘best experiences’ everything from having get-together’s with a group of my favorite girlfriends, planning last minute trips to other countries, getting a tattoo in Greece, making some of my lifelong friends, my program leaders always making us laugh. I couldn’t pick out a best experience because the whole experience was the best experience of my life.”
Be sure to get out and see the country and meet the people. Sarah Rooney, who just returned from her semester abroad, wants you to “definitely be open to trying new things and remember that everyone is feeling a little uncomfortable just like you. The semester goes by so fast so definitely take advantage of every moment you have there.” Your program may organize official events but you can also take this on your own. There will be places and events that are less intimidating for foreigners – major tourist destinations will help with language barriers. But you should also try to find the off-the-beaten path experiences.
Feeling overwhelmed can be a normal response, particularly after the initial excitement wears off. If you find yourself missing home, regretting your decision, or lacking motivation then reach out for help. Talk with your program coordinators, your family / friends, other students, and your home school advisors. Don’t feel like you need to get on a plane home right away. Remember mid-way through your first semester at college when the excitement was gone and the courses were getting really hard and you thought ‘Am I cut-out for college?’, well you got through that and studying abroad is the same thing. It’s a great learning, developing, maturing, communicating and broadening experience – and you’ll love it.
When you do return from studying abroad there are some things you’ll want to do. Talk with your study abroad and academic advisers about getting credit for the courses you took. You should also give back to your study abroad program. At CU (and many schools) there are communities of study abroad students who share their experiences with others interested in the program. Volunteering will help other students have a great experience just like you did.
Studying abroad is a great opportunity for personal growth. Ms. Farrar let us know that there are so many different programs, from summer semesters, internships, exchanges, and more, that every student can find something that fits their personal and academic goals. The first step is to reach out to your Education Abroad office and start the conversation.
We relied on many websites for this article, including University of Colorado Boulder, Go Abroad, Go Overseas. We’d also like to thank Ms. Hannah Farrar for taking the time to provide you with all this info about studying abroad. Marissa Casey and Sarah Rooney, juniors at CU Boulder, gave us the student perspective.
Cover image obtained through Office of Overseas Schools.
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