From faculty-led summer abroad programs lasting a few weeks to full-on exchange semesters, studying abroad is one of the best experiences you can have in college.
Studying abroad changed my life. When I was first accepted into a semester-long exchange program to Vienna, Austria, I had no idea the experience would have as much of a lasting effect on my education and my overall outlook as it did. Within the span of just six short months, I became immersed in a new culture, met some of my best friends, traveled throughout Europe, and ate some pretty amazing Sachertorte – all while continuing my undergraduate studies. In case it isn’t obvious, I’m a huge advocate of studying abroad.
And I’m not the only one. More and more students are taking advantage of study abroad opportunities during their undergraduate careers. According to the U.S. Department of State, a total of 325,339 U.S. students studied abroad for credit in the 2015-2016 school year – a 4% increase over the previous year.
So, without further ado, here are ten tips that anyone looking to study abroad should know:
1. Start the process early
Between researching programs, arranging finances, completing applications, meeting deadlines, and preparing everything before you leave, you are going to need time. And lots of it.
Begin researching programs at least two or three semesters ahead. For example, if you’re looking to study abroad in the spring semester of your junior year, be sure to start researching programs no later than the spring semester of your sophomore year. It will ensure that you have time to find the right program, get your finances in order, complete the lengthy application process, and complete all required pre-departure tasks (e.g. student visa applications).
2. Research. Research. RESEARCH!
When researching study abroad programs, look for the ones that best fit your course of study. Doing so will ensure that you are taking classes and earning credits that will contribute to your degree.
In addition, be sure to research specific places where you want to live abroad! From Europe and Asia to South America and Australia, each destination offers a unique cultural experience and a world of exciting opportunity.
A great place to kick off your research is your university’s international office. Consider it your “one-stop shop” for studying abroad. There you can find programs available through your school, receive guidance on the application and course registration processes, attend on-campus study abroad fairs, discover scholarship opportunities, and meet with other students who have studied overseas. Ultimately, with the right amount of research the right program for you will be that much easier to find.
3. Search the financial aid options
Between program tuition prices, travel costs, and living expenses, studying abroad can be expensive. Thankfully, there are many scholarships and grants out there just for students.
For example, some notable study abroad scholarships include the Boren Scholarship, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, University Studies Abroad Consortium Scholarship, and Robert B. Bailey Scholarship.
To get started, visit your school’s financial aid and international offices to learn more about what scholarships may be available for you. Additionally, check out online scholarship search websites to discover study abroad scholarships. For example, Sallie Mae’s Scholarship Search tool is one that offers students free access to roughly six million scholarships totaling $30 billion in financial aid.
4. Embrace the culture shock
As soon as your plane touches down on the tarmac, begin to immerse yourself in the new culture. Yes, there will be a culture shock – but embrace it!
Get outside of your comfort zone and try new things. Visit cultural sites, learn the local language, try new foods, and familiarize yourself with the area. If your study abroad program offers a cultural immersion program, do it! It will be a great way to learn more about the culture and meet fellow international students.
5. Remember the "study" in "study abroad"
While studying abroad is a great time to explore and have fun, do not forget that you are there for academics! Go to class, study for exams, and complete your schoolwork – just as you would back at your home university.
This may seem like a “no-brainer,” but you may be surprised by how often I hear of study abroad students skipping classes and then not earning the credits needed for their degree. Don’t be one of those people. Keep your eyes on the prize (your degree), work hard, and make the grade. Because at the end of the day, the credits you earn abroad will come back with you when you return.
6. Grow your circle
One of the best things about studying abroad is its ability to bring together people from so many distinct cultures and backgrounds. Take this opportunity to expand your social circle, at your host university, in the local community, and on your travels. Not only can you find travel companions for your adventures abroad, but you can develop lifelong friendships and expand your world view.
7. Make time to travel
Studying abroad is one of the best opportunities to see the world as a college student. Take advantage of semester breaks, long weekends, and the weeks following your exchange program to travel!
Plan trips with the friends you make in your program, take advantage of the cost-efficient travel and lodging options, and see as much as you can while you are abroad.
Obviously, travel should be entirely contingent upon your schoolwork (see tip #5) and budget (see tip #8). Still, make traveling a priority. Because the last thing you want to do is to return home and regret that you didn’t see more while you were abroad.
8. Create a budget
The best way to make sure you’re living and traveling within your means is to budget. When it comes to budgeting your cost of living, devise a monthly budget that outlines the amount you plan to spend on groceries, lodging, transportation, and fun. Then stick to it!
When creating a travel budget, look for cost-efficient means of transportation and lodging to save money. Visit online travel websites to compare prices and find the best travel deals.
Looking to create a budget? Check out Sallie Mae’s monthly budget worksheet to outline your budget, plan your expenses, and meet your financial goals.
9. Document your adventures
Whether you record your adventures in a personal journal, write about them in an online blog, or capture them through the lens of a camera, document your time abroad! There will come a day in the not-so-distant future when you will want to look back on your experience. So, make sure you are capturing your adventures in the moment to revisit them later.
10. Smell the roses
Time flies. Before you know it, your study abroad adventure will have come to an end and you’ll be on a plane headed home. This brings me to my final piece of advice: take time to smell the roses. This can be as simple as a relaxing stroll around the city, a spontaneous stop at a local bakery, or an awe-inspiring sight. Whatever it ends up being, make sure you take some time to take in the moment. Because, before you know it, it will be over.
There is nothing quite like studying abroad in college. From the world view you gain to the lifelong friends you make, there is so much to learn and experience. Start early, do your research, and keep the focus on school. But also, be open to new things, take chances, and explore!