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Expert Advice for Students Studying Abroad

Feb. 21, 2014
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During the 2011-12 academic year, the number of students who studied abroad increased by three percent, the Institute of International Education reports. Still, this only accounts for about 10 percent of the total undergraduate student population. Despite continued efforts from campuses to educate students on the benefits of studying abroad, the proportion of students who choose to do so remains low. Most students opt out  because it seems too expensive or irrelevant to their studies. But study abroad students often qualify for financial help, just as they would at school, and the experience makes for a great resume booster, too. With careful planning and the right information, study abroad is actually within reach for most students—and beneficial for all.

NerdScholar asked four study abroad experts and one student to weigh in on the responsibilities and considerations that come with planning a semester (or year) abroad. Hopefully their advice will make the study abroad process smoother, and encourage students to take part in this transformational experience.


1. Consider both your personal and academic needs.

Where: Each student’s study abroad destination, and subsequent program, should fit their individual needs. This requires students to ask questions about their personal interests and academic expectations. “An art history major might be drawn to the Italian home of the Renaissance, a marine science student may want to be close to the action at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or an engineering student could want to work on sustainable agriculture in Cameroon,” says Emily Dragon, director for the Global Education Program at the University of New England. For students looking to improve their language skills, they should consider all countries where that language is spoken. For example, “if [students are] looking to study French, France would be a natural choice, but French is also spoken and taught in many other countries,” says Brianne Bilsky, project coordinator for the Magellan Project, an international research opportunity for Washington & Jefferson College students.

When: As far as when students should study abroad, most advisors recommend that students leave campus during their junior year. Ian Kaneshiro, a student from California State-Monterey Bay, agrees: “There is so much to get used to in college life during the first two years, especially if you’re away from home for the first time. By the time junior year comes around, most students have their core classes and language requirements under their belts and are mature enough to handle traveling abroad.” Yet, again, this timeline depends on the individual student. Holly Carter, director of International Education at St. Edward’s University, says that she sees “more students apply their freshmen and sophomore years because they are using junior and senior year to focus on internships and applying for jobs.”

How: Students should also consider whether living with a host family, in a dorm, or in an apartment with other students would best suite their social needs. Katy Lane, program coordinator for International Business studies at Texas A&M University, says she is a big proponent of living with a host family. “You are able to experience the local culture first-hand,” Lane says. “A host family will allow you to practice the local language and enjoy the local cuisine.” For students who have adjusted to living with fellow classmates, “living in a dorm offers a more traditional college experience and is a good option for students who are looking to meet a lot of peers quickly,” says Bilsky. Finally, an apartment offers a blend of both options—a taste of local life shared with other students. But Emily Dragon warns that it also comes with extra challenges. “In many programs students are responsible for finding their own apartment, often from afar. And once you’ve secured it, you’ll have a local landlord, utilities, grocery shopping, and cooking to think about.”


2. Research expenses and academic credit transfers.

Once students have figured out what type of study abroad experience they want to have, it’s important to research program costs. The study abroad office is the best place to start, but students should also “check with a financial aid advisor to see how much of their financial aid package could apply toward the program that they’ve been researching,” Dragon says. Students should also factor in the cost-of-living and exchange rate in their target country, which may mean altering their original plan. “For instance, if the goal is to immerse yourself in a Spanish-speaking country, your travel and cost-of-living expenses would be much lower if you studied abroad in Mexico instead of Spain,” Bilsky says. By planning early, students can also research scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities offered through their program or university. “Some of the most popular include the Gilman Scholarship, the Boren Award, and the Freeman-ASIA Scholarship,” Bilsky adds.

In addition to finances, it’s important to ensure that the credits students earn abroad will transfer back to their home university. “Visit with your academic advisor as soon as you know you want to study abroad to find out what courses you are allowed to take for credit,” Lane says. “In some cases, courses may be taken abroad through your home university [program], but not a third-party provider.”


3. Combat homesickness by staying busy.

Even though studying abroad is an exciting time, it’s natural for students to encounter challenges while adapting to life in a foreign country, which will cause them to miss the comfort of home. But, Dragon stresses, “Don’t hide from these challenges! Try to explore and make local friends who will help you with the language, bring you to a concert, or show you a favorite local restaurant. Once you understand this new place and the people that live there, you’re more likely to feel at home where you are.” Even though it may be tempting to Skype daily, students should communicate with friends and family less often. Instead, students can stay connected with a large group of people by creating a blog or sending a periodic mass e-mail. Holly Carter also recommends that students keep a journal during their time abroad. Writing in a journal helps combat homesickness in addition to serving as a permanent reminder of everything that students saw, did, and accomplished during time abroad. But sometimes, students may just need to see a friendly face. To coordinate Skype or Facetime hangouts, student Ian Kaneshiro advises others to “set up a regular chat time to accommodate the time difference.”


4. Keep an open mind.

Despite any hesitations about studying abroad, students should remain open to the experience and embrace its potential as a life-changing opportunity. Most students will gain “awareness, appreciation, and cultural understanding, as well as important cross-cultural communication skills and independence,” Lane says. These skills can also translate to employers, Bilsky says, and once students return, they can advertise that they have developed “adaptability, self-confidence, and an appreciation for and understanding of cultural differences.” Regardless of the program or country that students choose, studying abroad is a unique opportunity that offers much more than travel. When students linger over the opportunities that they might miss back home, they should remember that missing out goes both ways, too. Kaneshiro says, “This is an experience that you will carry for the rest of your life, and once the opportunity is gone, it’s gone.”


Katy Lane is the Program Coordinator at the Center for International Business Studies at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. She has a Master’s in Cultural Tourism and is pursuing a PhD in International Education.

Emily Dragon is the Director for the Global Education Program at the University of New England (UNE).  She has been working in the field of international education for thirteen years and enjoys sharing her passion for global exploration with her students on a daily basis.

Brianne Bilsky holds a Ph.D. in English from Stanford University and has studied abroad in several countries, including Russia, France, and England. Currently, she is the Magellan Project Coordinator at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J). The Magellan Project provides W&J students with funding to complete independent, self-designed research studies in a country of their choosing. 

Holly Carter, PhD, is the Director of International Education for St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of North Texas and holds Masters degrees in public health, philosophy, social work, education, and sociology. 

Ian Kaneshiro is a graduating senior at California State University, Monterey Bay. A business major with an emphasis in management and international business, Ian has studied in Bilbao, Spain, Turin, Italy, and Nurtingen, Germany.

Study abroad student image courtesy of Shutterstock.