Is Study Abroad Right for You – or Someone You Know?

Old Colonial City of Granada, Nicaragua

As college students head off to campus this autumn— some for the first time as freshmen — they should have study abroad on their minds. Although only 10% of U.S. students actually study abroad over the course of their academic career according to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors Report, I would encourage both students and parents to consider how study abroad can enhance a student’s undergraduate degree.

Ask almost anyone who has studied abroad about their experience, and they will say it was a life-changing opportunity and one of the most rewarding things they have ever done. Ask these same individuals why they went, however, and the answers will be much more diverse. According to the survey I conducted prior to writing A Student Guide to Study Abroad (published by IIE in September 2013), of approximately 350 students who had studied abroad in the past five years, the top three reasons cited for studying abroad were:

  • Experience another culture/country: 92%
  • Travel: 89%
  • Personal growth: 83%

Secondary reasons include:

  • Have fun/take a break: 52%
  • Career prospects and marketability: 44%
  • Learn a language: 30%
  • Recommendation from a friend/peer: 23%
  • Major or career requirement: 18%

No matter your reasons for studying abroad, you will need to depart ready and open to experiencing the international lifestyle. Some students—and their parents—may have doubts about studying abroad. You may not be sure if you’re ready to spend six months in another country struggling through a second language. You might be concerned about leaving a boyfriend, girlfriend, or groups of friends you’ve recently made. Perhaps you think it will interfere with your coursework for your major, possibly postponing your graduation date. Maybe you’ve never traveled internationally before.

Only you can tell if you have the curiosity, openness and interest to successfully study abroad. Picking up and moving to another country for a semester or a year requires a good deal of research, thoughtful planning, and honest self-assessment. To be sure, no one knows you as well as you know yourself.

Assessing Your Situation and Taking Stock of Your Needs

In addition to determining if studying abroad is a good educational, cultural and emotional fit for you, it’s highly beneficial to determine the kind of study abroad program that is likely to suit you best. Fortunately, there are many more options than there were just 20 years ago when, generally speaking, you either participated in your school’s established study abroad program or you just didn’t go. The flip side of that, of course, is that the abundance of choices available today can seem overwhelming. But if you begin your decision-making process with a prioritized list of criteria, you should be able to narrow the options down to manageable levels. Here’s a list of questions to get you started.

  1. What do you want to study? It could be your major subject, it could be the native language, or it could be simply to help meet diversification requirements in a creative and intriguing way. And, of course, it could be a combination. You should also consider whether it is important to you to have opportunities to conduct research in your field, or to take part in internship or service learning activities while you are there.
  2. How important is it that you earn credit for studying abroad? In light of the total financial outlay of studying abroad, the vast majority of students want to receive at least some academic credit for their time and effort. But not all need to receive a full term or semester’s worth. So what is the minimum number of credits you will need to receive to stay on track for graduation?
  3. Where do you want to study, and why? Is there a specific country or region that interests you, perhaps one that you would want to return to work and live in after graduation? Is there a specific language you want to work on? Is there a part of the world that you are exceptionally curious about and can’t wait to begin exploring? The answers to some of these questions can effectively narrow your search for an appropriate study abroad program. For example, if you want to study classical Greek architecture or Incan history, you’re pretty much going to end up in Greece or Peru. But other goals, like wanting to become fluent in Spanish, can leave you with a wide range of choices. If this is the case, you will need to identify secondary levels of interest such as history, culture, environment, or perhaps long-term business opportunities.
  4. Where and with whom do you want to live? With a host family? In your own apartment? In a dorm with other students? And if in a dorm, with other American students, with students from all over the world, or with local students? Do you want to go abroad with a group of friends?
  5. How long do you want to be overseas? Options typically include anything from two weeks to a full academic year. For many, however, especially those who have jobs or who are locked into rigid course sequences, a summer program might prove to be the best alternative. Others study overseas for a full year after receiving their U.S. bachelor’s degree.
  6. How proficient are you in a second language? Are you proficient enough to take classes in that second language? (If so, you should certainly do so.) Or is your skill level high enough that you can have conversations, but you think that coursework will be too much of a struggle? If so, you may need to find a program taught in English. However, you may also be able to take additional language classes while you are there, and make the most of out-of-classroom opportunities to improve your local language skills.
  7. What is the program going to cost? While tuition and fees plus room and board account for the lion’s share of the expenses of studying abroad, there are frequently other expenses involved, and you will need to plan for these as well. Among the more obvious are airfare, visa fees, and everyday expenses such as food and local transportation. But don’t forget to account for additional expenses such as excursions, field trips, and mobile phones.
  8. Are you currently receiving financial aid? If so, will you be able to apply it to the study abroad program? If not, will you be able to find an alternative source of funding?
  9. Do you have a job or internship that will be adversely affected? If so, find out if you can be granted the time off and if it will be possible to reapply upon your return. Many employers may be impressed that you are picking up and moving overseas to further your education, and may be willing to accommodate you. But you’ll need to verify this in advance.
  10. How much freedom do you want or need? Study abroad programs differ widely in their structure, formality, and level of independence. Keep in mind that there are pros and cons to both ends of the spectrum, and that living in another country offers a degree of independence all by itself!
  11. What do you want most out of the experience? Do you most want to learn, experience a new culture, teach, gain work experience? Whatever your specific objective is, make sure that the study abroad program you choose can help you achieve it.
  12. Do you have a disability? Talk with your study abroad office or program, and alumni with similar experiences. Be realistic about the challenges you may face, as well as open to the possibilities and opportunities. Research your specific needs, build support networks, and trust in your adaptability and resilience once abroad.

This list should help you begin to sort through the many considerations you’ll need to weigh about any individual program. But keep in mind that although these practical elements are all important to some degree or another, an open mind and your level of personal preparedness will probably have the greatest impact on your international experience.

The Wrong Reasons to Study Abroad

If you’re looking for academic escape or a stress-free semester primarily spent gallivanting about, studying abroad is not for you. If you simply want to travel abroad, then do so—and dispense with the studying part. Not only will it be less expensive overall, you will be able to do it at the time of year that best suits your schedule, and you will be able to go wherever you want, not just where a suitable program is offered. Just don’t expect the same results. Studying abroad offers the chance to study with professors in a university system different than your own. It affords you the opportunity to take classes that aren’t offered at your home campus, often in a second language. It enables you to study alongside students from the host country and a diverse group from around the world. You’ll actually be in a learning environment, not just a travel mode, which means challenges—and rewards—on a completely different scale.

For more information on study abroad, check out IIE’s Generation Study Abroad campaign designed to double the number of students going abroad by 2019.