You wake up with a foreign breeze blowing through your window, the air spiced with the fragrance of coffee from the sidewalk cafe just down the street from your apartment. Will you go to class today or will you explore the historic Old Town? Or will you head to a nearby village for a long weekend? The nearly three hundred thousand US students that participate in study abroad each year face these “tough” choices while abroad. Students must strike a fine balance between coursework and enjoying the new city and country they are living in.
Studying abroad is a rite of passage for many college students because it changes their lives for the better. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel overseas and immerse yourself in a different culture and often a different language.
For Americans, European countries comprise the majority of the top ten study abroad destinations, with Mexico, China, and Australia filling out the rest of the top ten. Students majoring in business, the humanities, and social sciences tend to study abroad more frequently than students in engineering and the physical sciences.
Studying abroad isn’t always cheap. Costs vary widely between programs and schools abroad from a few thousand dollars for a summer program to tens of thousands for a semester or year abroad. For Millennials in college today, the costs are justified by the personal growth and career enhancement that comes from studying abroad.
A Trip Of A Lifetime
For those on the traditional life path of earning a college degree, finding a job, settling down with a spouse, and working until retirement, there isn’t an easy way to squeeze in an extended trip overseas. Studying abroad offers the possibility of living in a foreign country for an extended period without jumping off of the traditional college-job-family life path. Most study abroad programs offer the opportunity to earn as many academic credits as the student would earn at their home institution here in the United States. Summer programs of five to six weeks commonly offer six credit hours which is similar to what students can earn in summer school. A full semester abroad usually results in a full course load of academic credits that will transfer back to the student’s home institution.
In the US, we are saddled with a workplace culture that discourages long term trips. Some employers provide only a few weeks of vacation time and actively discourage employees from taking off more than a week at a time. A week abroad is hardly a vacation and barely gives the tourist time to unpack their suitcases. To get a true taste of the sights, sounds, and culture of a new city or country, you need weeks or months in the place.
Since the rigors of the workplace make taking time off difficult, the best time to travel abroad for a long stretch is during college. Students don’t have as many family or economic responsibilities during that period of their life, and aren’t tied down to a job yet. Study abroad is convenient for college students because it serves the dual purpose of fulfilling academic requirements while also providing months to explore a foreign country and a foreign culture.
Forming Lifelong Bonds
A study abroad experience will put you in a foreign country with a small group of students from your home institution. During your time abroad, you’ll form close friendships with many of your fellow students that might last well beyond the study abroad experience itself.
You’ll also form friendships with the locals where you are studying. Whether you have a host family or stay in the dorms, you’ll meet a lot of people and connect with them on a personal level. Keeping in touch is easier than ever today with the availability of social media. You’ll have locals in your network of friends if you ever decide to visit the country again, or if you find yourself needing business connections abroad. After my study abroad trip during college, I returned the next summer and made a point to visit with members of my host family and enjoyed reconnecting and catching up with them.
Once you make friends with people abroad, it becomes harder to be xenophobic back in the States. Your understanding of immigration policy and foreign trade policy will be elevated. It isn’t easy to maintain a counterproductive “us versus them” mentality after you learn first hand that “they” are just like “us” in many regards. It may be a stretch to claim studying abroad will prevent future wars and international animosity, but becoming more familiar with other peoples and cultures certainly won’t hurt our chances of peace.
On a lighter note, you may form a lifelong bond with the food of the country you visit. When you live in a foreign country for a summer or a semester, you will find it hard to avoid eating local foods. Some will grow on you. When you return home, you can bring the culinary diversity home with you. Fifteen years later, I still get ideas and motivation in the kitchen from different dishes I tried while studying abroad.
Gaining A Global Perspective
While studying abroad in Mexico, I stayed with a host family that enjoyed a comfortable middle class Mexican lifestyle. They had a modest, older house that accommodated grandparents, parents, and children. Their living room was similar to my college apartment’s living room in the US with an old television, a couch, and a few chairs or recliners. The four adults all shared one ten year old car. They always had plenty of food to eat, but it was almost always prepared at home, with take out meals or restaurant dining kept to a minimum.
While residing with my host family, I realized they lived a very happy and satisfying life even though they didn’t have the same level of material wealth as a typical middle class family in the US. They joked together, played together, dined together, and made the most of life. Like many families in the US, I am sure they had to pay attention to their spending to ensure they were able to pay their bills each month.
In a relatively wealthy country like the US, it’s easy to take creature comforts and material wealth for granted. After seeing how a typical middle class family lives in a developing country, it was clear that owning a large house with a multi-car garage full of late model cars was living in luxury on a global scale. I learned that I could live comfortably and happily in the US without buying a McMansion or multiple late model vehicles. With the global perspective acquired on my study abroad trip, I realized households in many parts of the world get by with much less material wealth than we enjoy in the US.
Study abroad trips to other destinations like Paris, London, or Hong Kong can also provide a lot of perspective on how other people live around the world. Housing sizes are much smaller in most places outside of the US. In most urban areas in Europe and Asia, houses and apartments are one third to one half the size of the average American home. Living in tighter quarters might not be as bad as you think, and after spending a semester living in a smaller footprint, you might change your mind as to how much house you want to buy (and heat, cool, maintain, insure, and pay tax on).
The biggest draw of study abroad for most students is probably the excitement of being in a foreign place and a foreign culture. Traveling abroad is also a great resume booster. Whether the student lists the study abroad experience on their resume or brings it up in an interview, it’s a great opportunity for a job applicant to show they are okay leaving what’s comfortable to explore new environments and take risks.
Many study abroad programs include immersion in a foreign language. Being proficient in German, Mandarin, or Spanish with in-country experience speaking the language might be the exact edge that an applicant needs to set themselves apart from a crowded field of resumes. In today’s globalized business environment, employers are increasingly looking for employees who are comfortable interacting with others on an international level.
Although I would argue the biggest benefits from a study abroad experience are personal growth and broadening one’s horizons, the financial outlay for a study abroad program can be justified by the improvement to one’s job prospects after graduation.
While studying abroad won’t be a good fit for everyone due to the cost or lack of options in your academic program, it can be a life changing experience for those that do make the choice. It’s a great opportunity to travel for an extended period of time and really get to know the city and country where you are studying. You’ll be forming lifelong bonds with your fellow study abroad classmates and with the local students. You may also fall in love with the locale and the food.
After an extended stretch abroad, you’ll learn to examine your own assumptions about how and where to live and what material possessions you need to lead a good life. Outside of personal enrichment, a study abroad experience will make you more attractive to employers and more able to work with international teams in the business world.
A final benefit of studying abroad is the personal growth and independence that comes from being on your own in a foreign country. College is supposed to be the time of transition from adolescence to adulthood. However, many college students still rely heavily on their parents to make decisions, provide advice, and act as a sounding board. While studying abroad, students will often be forced to think and act on their own and rely on their wits and intuition to get by. Upon graduating college, those with study abroad experience will enter the real world with a real competitive advantage.
Did you participate in a study abroad program while in college? Have you lived overseas for an extended period? If you missed out on studying abroad, there’s always the chance of retiring abroad as well.
//Photo: Sunrise in Lucerne, Switzerland by Sam Dogen