WHO SHOULD STUDY ABROAD
This is the third in a series of posts about “who-what-when-where-why-how to study abroad.” This post will address the “who” part of the question. This series is written for American students interested in studying abroad, but it provides useful information and thoughts for everyone.
Living in a foreign country is not for everyone, and that’s perfectly ok. The problem is that some students misunderstand what studying abroad is about, and end up in an environment that they didn’t expect and don’t enjoy. So before spending considerable time and money you should take a moment to consider if studying abroad is something that would suit and benefit you.
Studying abroad is an experience that would be extremely valuable for the majority of students, so it’s easier to talk about who should think twice before studying abroad. In my opinion, the most important issue is the popular confusion between living abroad and traveling abroad, because expectations (and ultimately the overall experience) hinges on initial motivations.
One of my pet peeves is being asked how I managed to travel for twelve years. This is the question I sometimes get when I tell people that I lived overseas for twelve years. It’s immediately clear that they see me as a kind of global Christopher McCandless, hitching rides from one place to another with a dusty backpack and not a care in the world. Living abroad is not like that. For whatever reason, American culture confuses being abroad with travel, and travel with vacation. Disappointing experiences abroad often stem from this confusion.
Close your eyes and picture yourself “studying abroad.” Do you see yourself sunbathing on a beach, taking selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower, or partying with exciting foreigners? Then you’ve probably fallen prey to this popular misconception. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being excited about those things and looking forward to them as part of your experience, but if they are your primary motivations then maybe you’re really looking for a vacation. A vacation is about getting away from reality and enjoying creature comforts, living abroad is about embracing an unknown reality and getting outside your comfort zone. If the latter sounds exciting to you (and it’s completely normal if that excitement is mingled with nervousness), then you probably have the right kind of personality for studying abroad.
Getting out of your comfort zone has become something of a cliché, so let’s look a little deeper. Do you enjoy meeting new people, trying unknown food, visiting unfamiliar cities, or starting new activities? These things define life as a foreigner and will be part of your daily experience, at least for the first few months. Everything is new, from figuring out where to do your grocery shopping to creating new social circles. This is intimidating to everyone at first, but if you already dislike change in your home country and a life of constant adjustment and unknowns sounds terrifying then you should seriously examine your motivations for studying abroad. Similar to this is homesickness, which is something everyone deals with to some degree, but if you’ve had recent experiences when being away from home for more than a couple weeks was nearly unbearable, then there’s no reason why being in another country would magically change this and there’s a good chance you’d have a very difficult time getting much enjoyment from living abroad.
To be fair, I have known people who went abroad because they were introverts, homebodies, or generally unadventurous, and they wanted to change those characteristics. In most cases they were quite successful in these goals, so clearly all personality types can benefit. I think the key is entering the experience knowing that it will be hard and wanting to grow and change as a result, so again the key is a willingness to step outside comfort zones and embrace the new and different. You can be even more sure of your readiness if you close your eyes and see yourself practicing a foreign language, experiencing how people live differently from you, and discovering new food, music, art, sports, hobbies, and passions that you never knew existed. These are the defining features of study abroad.
LET’S GET PRACTICAL
Moving on to more practical concerns, Matthew Karsten sums it up well when explaining why he never studied abroad: “Like many people, I assumed it was expensive, I’d fall behind in credits, would have difficulty with the language, and was nervous of the whole idea.” (http://expertvagabond.com/reasons-to-study-abroad/) He goes on to explain why all of these were misconceptions. If fact, because American tuition is higher than in much of the world, studying abroad can often be managed for the same cost (or even less! https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/10/29/7-countries-where-americans-can-study-at-universities-in-english-for-free-or-almost-free/ ) as a semester at your home university. Likewise for falling behind academically, there’s no reason why studying abroad should slow you down if you plan carefully. There are study abroad programs designed for practically every major imaginable (and studyabroad101.com is a great place to start with this list of study abroad programs by major: https://www.studyabroad101.com/subjects), and if you go early in your college career you will have considerable flexibility in taking courses for GE credit. Finally, foreign language is definitely a perk of studying abroad but not at all a prerequisite. You could study in one of many English speaking countries like Ireland, New Zealand, or South Africa, or a country where English is commonly spoken like Sweden, Singapore, or Ghana. There are also countless programs taught entirely in English all over the world, so don’t let a lack of foreign language skills slow you down. For better or worse, studying in a foreign country does not mean studying in a foreign language. So, none of these concerns should stop you from at least researching your options further.
However, there are other practical elements that should give you pause. If you do all the math, apply for scholarships, and realize that in the end you’ll go deeper into debt in order to study abroad, then you need to think carefully about what it will bring to you in terms of career opportunities and academic advancement. As valuable as it is I’m not going to tell you that studying abroad is worth any cost at all, especially when there’s the option to wait and plan for a tuition free graduate degree abroad, for example. Health is another factor, although I’ve met people who went abroad despite being blind or in a wheelchair, so there are ways to make it work with proper preparation. But in general living abroad means being ready for the unexpected, so if you have a condition that means an unexpected event could result in a life or death situation, then you need to be sure that the benefit to you is worth the higher level of risk that your situation entails. Being in a serious relationship is also a factor. Long distance relationships are not impossible to maintain, but it definitely adds a strain and requires discipline from you to invest time into the relationship despite being far away. Could the two of you study abroad together? Would you be able to visit each other every few months? In all these cases of financial, medical, or relationship concerns, consider short term study abroad program for two to four weeks. That would mitigate the risk, and if you absolutely love it then you’ll be able to plan for a longer program with the confidence that it’s worth it.
Some readers probably found this article because they’re wondering if they’re old enough to study abroad. I see this more as a question of maturity, since there are some 14-year-olds who are absolutely ready and others of any age who will well suited for the challenge. More and more high school students are studying abroad, whether for a few weeks or a year, but it’s more complex than for college students because it’s definitely not cheaper than studying in a public high school at home, the program needs more oversight and adult supervision, and it can be difficult to make sure that credits abroad fit into the standard high school curriculum. That said, as I will detail in the “When to Study Abroad” article next week, if there’s a will and a way then the sooner the better! As for maturity, it goes back to the first section of this article: If you’re ready to embrace change, accept differences in people without judgement, seek opportunities for personal growth, and the idea of being pushed out of of your comfort zone sounds like an adventure, then you’re probably mature enough!
READY FOR A BIGGER CHALLENGE?
There’s a final question about who should study abroad in a challenging country. There will be a lot more information about this in the “Where to Study Abroad” article, so don’t miss that. In that article I will explain why I strongly recommend studying in a less mainstream country (i.e. outside Europe). However, this means that everything I’ve said here about evaluating your flexibility and openness to change counts doubly. Living in Paris or Rome is already a challenge, even though the way of life is not dramatically different than in the US. Before considering a less-developed country you need to do some deeper self-examination. How would you respond to suddenly not having electricity for a day? How would you handle standing out as a foreigner everywhere you go? Could you cope with the presence of critters (bugs and small reptiles) in your home? Are you ready to eat something you can’t identify? These are just a few examples, so be sure to read about the experiences of students who lived there in study abroad reviews and blogs, and ask yourself honestly if the challenges they faced would prevent you from enjoying the overall experience. That being said, and as I’ll explain in a future article, greater challenge means greater reward!
Ultimately there is no solid checklist or personality test you that can clearly demonstrate how well suited you are to studying abroad, so I can only stress the importance of internal evaluation. If the idea of being immersed in an entirely different culture fills you with excitement rather than fear, if meeting a new circle of people sound like an adventure rather than hell, and if being pushed out of your comfort zone to do new things sounds like an opportunity for growth rather than senseless torture, then you’re probably the type of person who would thrive abroad. If that’s your case, then no logistical concerns should stop you from at least taking the next step in researching your opportunities. There are programs to advance every major, scholarships abound, and medical obstacles can be overcome. Talk to your academic advisor, do some more research, and pursue the goal!
You should be very cautious, however, if your list of primary motivations for studying abroad make it sound like a long vacation. Likewise, if you find yourself saying things like “I just need to get away,” or “I need a break from my problems here,” then you’ll probably be disappointed to discover the truth of the saying “wherever you go, there you are.” We have a way of taking our problems with us, and a new environment do not magically transform us unless we are first open to changing and growing irrespective of the environment. If your motivations are good, however, I truly believe that nothing will help you grow and learn faster than studying abroad.
Feel free to share this article with someone who’s considering studying abroad, and all comments or questions below will be answered. Next week we’ll discuss “When to Study Abroad,” so don’t miss it! Thanks for reading!
Caleb House –
Caleb House grew up in Northern California and has lived in the Czech Republic, Japan, India, Tanzania, France, South Korea, Germany, and Côte d’Ivoire as a student, teacher, volunteer, backpacker, researcher, and administrator. He holds graduate degrees in Modern Global History from Jacobs University Bremen and in International Management from the Burgundy School of Business. He recently married his soulmate in her tiny village in France, and the two currently find themselves in Washington D.C. He is preparing the launch of his website, HowToGoAbroad.com, and in the meantime can be contacted with questions on his Facebook page “How to Go Abroad” or on Twitter @HowToGoAbroad.