Study Abroad in College

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Study Abroad in College

Study Abroad in College

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Study Abroad in college has become, for many, an essential part of the university experience. Study abroad programs can be a great way to immerse yourself in a different culture, travel to new places, and become more acquainted with the world around us.

How should study abroad factor into your college choices?

First, however, let’s start with the way most people begin thinking about study abroad. When students or parents tell me, “Studying abroad is really important to me,” I have to ask a few questions. The problem is that there are so many options, so many programs, and so many ways in which to pursue “study abroad,” that students and parents need to think about their priorities first before they begin looking vast menus of opportunities.

Here are some preliminary considerations as you begin thinking about how to incorporate study abroad into your college plan and your college choice.

1. What countries interest you most?

Some students already have traveled as youngsters, while others have not been outside of the country by the end of high school. For those who have been abroad, perhaps you’d like to return to someplace you’ve already been. Or perhaps you want to have a bigger adventure and go somewhere new.

And if you’ve never been abroad before, what is your level of comfort traveling to a new place? I remember that the first time I left the country, I was a bit nervous at first. But after I got my first taste of travel, I have never been able to get enough! In any event, you want to make a list of the top two or three places you’d like to go for your study abroad experience.

2. What do you want to study?

It used to be that most study abroad programs were centered around learning a language. This is no longer true. There are programs of every sort allowing you to study anything from Indian classical dance to volcanology to wetlands ecology to urban planning. Obviously, you can also focus on language study, too, if fluency is a goal (it was for me when I went abroad in college). So, before you start zooming around college websites looking at their study abroad programs, make a short list of things that might be fun for you to study while you’re abroad.

Further, you may want to consider whether study abroad is part of your major course of study, or whether this will fall into the “electives” category of your educational plan. For example, I knew students who went on geology-focused study abroad programs as part of their geology major. I also had an opportunity, as a religion major, to pursue courses in religious studies in Edinburgh.

However, I decided that my study abroad program would not be focused on my major, but that instead I would fulfill my language study requirements in France and work toward building competency in the language (which later allowed me to return to France to teach English after graduation).

Thus, it is possible to work study abroad options into your overall four-year educational plan while in college so that you can explore subjects outside your major in another country.

Once again, before you start researching huge menus of programs, think about how you want study abroad to fit into your overall educational plan.

3. What requirements and prerequisites are you able and willing to meet before you go?

Some programs require a certain level of fluency in the language. Others may require that you have completed certain kinds of courses before you can participate. For example, that geology program may require that you have completed introductory geology courses before you can apply. Or the Irish literature program may require that you have completed a couple of semesters of survey courses before you can begin to specialize while in Ireland.

Fulfilling these requirements is rarely onerous, as study abroad options generally don’t begin until at least the second semester of the second year, and perhaps the most popular time to go abroad is in the junior year. But think about how study abroad fits into the wider set of requirements of the university and how you will most likely fit the experience into your academic plan.

4. What limitations may you face?

Some academic programs make it harder to study abroad. Engineering is the best example. The engineering course of study at many universities is presented in a fairly strict sequence, and you must take the course in order. If you take a semester out to study abroad, then you might delay your progress toward graduation.

So, if you are planning to pursue a Bachelors of Engineering, or other more specialized degrees—including business, nursing, or fine arts, among others—you need to ask admissions about the compatibility of study abroad programs with the major that you plan to pursue. In some places, you’ll end up graduating a year later and paying more money for your degree.

In other places, such as the University of Rhode Island, you’ll find international study abroad programs woven into the engineering program (though at URI, this “international engineering” program is a 5-year opportunity to earn both a BEng and a BA in a foreign language). The upshot is that if you plan to pursue a major with relatively strict, programmed, and sequenced curriculum—and you want to study abroad—look specifically for universities that will allow you to incorporate both goals into your college experience.

5. What are the financial implications of study abroad on your university experience, if any?

In some cases, your financial aid and merit-based scholarships can be applied to a university-approved study abroad program. In some cases, you will have to pay more for study abroad than for courses on campus. If financial considerations are important, be sure to research how the university charges for these programs and whether your financial package can be applied to them.

6. How much time do you want to spend abroad?

Back in the “olden days,” study abroad was something you did during your entire junior year. Traveling across the ocean was expensive and time-consuming, and the general practice was to spend an entire academic year abroad. This is no longer the case. You can earn academic credit for short courses of 2-3 weeks during the winter holiday, your spring break, or certainly for part of the summer recess.

Some of these are organized by faculty at your university (I have a professor friend at William and Mary that just took some students to Australia to study anthropology for three weeks, for example). Other programs are organized by third-parties. Either way, if you want to study abroad for just a more intense period, that is definitely possible (but review the other questions above: to study what, where?).

So now we have the basic considerations out of the way. However, sometimes understanding the context in which study abroad in college is created can help you make more informed decisions. In that spirit, let’s explore how study abroad in college are integrated—or not—into the university’s overall curriculum.

Types of Study Abroad in College

Generally speaking, there are two sorts of programs to consider.

University-sponsored study abroad in college

These programs are created and supervised by faculty at the university. Students from your university travel together to the overseas site. They take a course or courses with a professor who is affiliated with and employed by the university, either as a full-time, tenure track professor, or as an adjunct professor. Tuition is paid directly to the university and credits are automatically put on your transcript—because it is this university that is offering the program exclusively to its own students (though sometimes students from other universities may join under special arrangement).

Advantages of this program include that you are assured that faculty at the university have helped to plan the program, and that recording credits is seamless: you register for the program directly through your university and credits come from your university. This sort of program used to be more common, but as we shall see, they are generally more expensive for the university to operate—so they have been replaced by another model.

Study abroad programs created and sponsored by third-parties

Capitalism is a great thing. It allows different organizations to specialize, and therefore offer economies of scale. As study abroad became more popular and more expensive for universities to operate, third party companies began to pop up to organize study abroad with a less-expensive business model, and then to offer their programs to universities nationwide.

This has led to two developments. First, there is an enormous proliferation of specialized programs in all corners of the world. Universities are able to offer these incredible menus of opportunities to their students at relatively low cost. So as a consumer, you have more choice.

And universities can save money by farming out the educational program to another entity. There are downsides of this programmatic proliferation and specialization, however. You will not be going on the program with others from your university, and the faculty at your university will not be involved in any way in the organization or development of the courses on offer. This doesn’t mean the programs will not be academically solid, but you need to ask some questions before you simply sign up for them.

The fact is that study abroad programs are a money-maker for a university. They charge you tuition, and then they pay the third-party provider a fraction of the tuition charged. If your financial aid package is transferrable to study abroad programs, the study abroad could be a great bargain. Or you could, in effect, be paying quite a lot more for an overseas experience than they actual cost of that experience—simply because you are doing it through your university.

Alternatives to Study Abroad in College

Perhaps you can’t afford it. Perhaps your curriculum plan won’t allow it. Maybe you just want to enjoy all four years on campus and leave your experience abroad until after you graduate. Study abroad in college is not for everyone. Plus, there is the issue of expense: aren’t there cheaper alternatives? With these points in mind, I have two more recommendations.

First, it is possible to enroll directly as an exchange student for a semester at many universities around the world.

You just have to take the time to do your research, manage the communications, and handle a lot of administrative inefficiencies. Part of what you get by electing by paying all that tuition money is the elimination of headaches. But if you want to save money, you can DIY it.

For example, my son decided he wanted to study in Spain for a semester. He already spoke the language, having lived in Mexico and attended a Mexican school while in 8th grade. And he already knew that study abroad was super-expensive (he does listen to his dad on occasion). So, he got online, did a bit of research, made a phone call or two, and enrolled in a full semester of courses at the Universidad de Salamanca. He paid $1200 in tuition for the semester, plus $200 per month for a shared apartment in the heart of the city, walking distance to the university.

The only rub: his American university said, “we might not accept the credits when you get back, so enroll at your own risk.” We both agreed that at that price it didn’t much matter whether the credits would eventually be accepted by his American university. So, he went. And had a blast. He joined a choir, too, with cool outfits and he got to sing a concert where the King of Spain was in attendance. And he actually failed one his four courses, because he found the professor exceedingly dull, and the schedule conflicted with his cool course experience.

But it didn’t matter! His American university accepted his after-the-fact petition to accept the three courses that he did pass (very handily), and the one he failed never appeared anywhere on his transcript for the US university—it’s as though he had never taken it. (This risk-taking behavior would never have been rewarded had the enrolled through the study abroad program at his American university).

And what was at the foundation of his petition for the acceptance of those credits: his university already had an “official, approved” study abroad program with a third party that was administered at the University of Salamanca. So, the US university decided that it was wise to just quietly accept the credits and hope that my son didn’t tell too many others how easy it was to enroll in a Spanish university all by himself.

The other option is for students who really want to learn a second (or third! or fourth!) language.

Dedicated language schools exist all over the world. These are small, private companies that offer lessons in that language to just about anyone. Many cater to foreigners who are coming to that country for a short-term language immersion.

For example, I have attended three different Spanish language schools in Mexico. I enrolled in intensive Spanish course with a small group of 3-4 other learners at my level. Classes lasted from about 8 to 2 pm, with a couple of breaks in between. Classrooms were often outside or in cheerful cabañas or under umbrellas around the pool, and snacks were available for purchase during those breaks. Then I went home for comida prepared by my homestay family.

After that was free time: take a siesta, go for a walk, head to the zocalo to drink a beer and read the newspaper, or chat with new friends from Switzerland and Maine. In the evenings, I could either have dinner with my host family, or I could go out on the town with friends (mostly I hung out with my host family and played board games—which was a great way to learn Spanish).

You can have all this for about $600 per week, including all instruction, a shared room in a comfortable home, and three meals a day. And if you did this for an entire 15-week semester, your costs would be less about $9000, plus travel–which is a lot less than a tuition and room and board to study Spanish this intensively in college. (Of course, these sorts of programs vary in price by country and by location within the country: If you want to study French in Monte Carlo, be prepared to spend some dough).

If you’re intrigued by this model, have a look at the National Registration Center for Study Abroad. They vet these sorts of programs around the world, and they can provide guidance and advice for participants of any age (parents…this is “study abroad” for you, too!). If you contact NRCSA, let them know I sent you. They are nice folks.

Conclusion: Study Abroad in College Can Be Awesome

My own study abroad program in college was a formative experience. I am still in touch with several of my college classmates who accompanied me on that trip. My host family and I remain in touch decades later. I still speak French, and many of my jobs after college were focused on France and/or used my language skills.

And it sparked a life-long interest in international affairs that led me to a Ph.D. in the field and other stints living abroad in Mexico and Hong Kong. It literally opened a new world for me.

And it just might for you, too.