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In an increasingly interconnected world, the opportunity to spend time living and studying in another country can be an incredibly valuable experience. Study abroad offers students the opportunity to see new things, meet new people, and learn about cultures, lives, and history outside of their own, all experiences which can help shape a future career or just produce a better-rounded and culturally intelligent adult. Despite the potential benefits that study abroad offers students in a global economy, many are often reluctant to pursue it as part of their educational experiences. In fact, a surprisingly small number of students will study abroad during their undergraduate education.
According to recent data from the Institute of International Education, while 20% of American students say they’d like to study abroad, only 1% actually do so in any academic year. Over the course of an undergraduate education, just 14% of students will study abroad. What’s more, despite consistent growth in the number of students who head to college, the percentage of those who choose to study abroad has grown very little over the past few years, just 1.3% between 2010 and 2012.
Why do so few go abroad each year? It’s likely because there are a lot of perceived barriers to study abroad, including lack of information, financial concerns, and worries about visas and homesickness. All of these things can make study abroad seem intimidating, scary, or even downright impossible.
While study abroad might not be the right choice for every student and every situation, learning more about what it is, the opportunities it offers, and how to find resources (including financial assistance) that can make foreign study a reality can help students make more well-informed decisions about whether or not spending time abroad is something that meshes well with their personal goals and ambitions. In the first part of this three-part series (see part two here and part three here), we’ll address the most common type of travel for college students — study abroad — sharing major trends, useful information, and student experiences that will shed light on both the basics and the benefits of study abroad.
Study Abroad Trends
There is no one type of student who chooses to go abroad, but some majors do send more students abroad than others. Those in the humanities are most likely to study overseas, with students in these majors making up about 28% of all students abroad between 2007 and 2008. Study abroad is also incredibly popular with business and management majors (20% of students) and those in the social sciences (21% of students). Those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields and education are much less likely to go abroad, with students in these majors making up a combined 20% of all students studying overseas.
Historically, the hottest destination for American students looking to study abroad has been Europe and that’s still true, with the U.K., Italy, Spain, and France drawing in a combined 39% of students going abroad for study. In recent years, however, countries outside of Europe have also become popular destinations, especially China, which has seen a surge in the number of students it draws in through study abroad programs, growing by almost 5% between 2011 and 2012. Other countries seeing a growth in students include Costa Rica, Brazil, and India, demonstrating that students certainly won’t be alone in looking outside of Europe for study abroad opportunities.
While most students who go abroad will choose to stay for a semester or more, the number of those opting for summer or short-term stays has increased over the past decade. According to Open Doors, the number of students opting for shorter terms of foreign study increased from 47.5% in 1999 to 54.5% in 2008, perhaps because these types of programs are more flexible and allow students to better manage their finances and requirements at their home campuses.
If you’re wondering when it’s most common to squeeze in your study abroad, most students, 36.8%, choose to make the trip while they’re in their junior year. However, over the past decade, a growing number of graduate students have decided to take courses or pursue opportunities for study overseas, now comprising just about 7% of study abroad participants overall.
Types of Study Abroad
Study abroad opportunities can vary quite a bit, so it can be hard to determine just which type is right for you and what you can expect from the experience. Generally speaking, there are three major groupings of study abroad programs, dividing them by duration, program model, and program sponsor.
While most students opt for studying abroad for a semester or a summer (these shorter programs enroll about 73% of all students who go abroad), there are a variety of other options for study abroad, too. Those who attend schools operating on a quarter system may be able to head overseas for one or two quarters. Additionally, other shorter programs that encompass eight weeks or less, including those over a January term, are also fairly popular options. Still, for those who want to really get involved with living and studying in another nation, there are plenty of opportunities for full-year study, too, though fewer students opt for these lengthy sojourns abroad than in years past.
The program model integrates your study and into the college or educational institution, providing your education in a foreign nation. While programs can differ greatly, there are four major categories:
- Island: Island programs provide students with the chance to travel to and live in a foreign country, but courses are all taken in English and with other American students in a study center or through a special program at a university.
- Integrated: Programs that are integrated immerse students right into a foreign university, having them take courses alongside students at their host school. This kind of experience offers greater cultural opportunities but may require students to spend additional time honing their language skills if their native language is not the one spoken in their host country.
- Hybrid: Hybrid programs blend elements from island and integrated programs, offering students courses at a study center but also requiring that they take courses at a local university. These programs tend to be more common in nations where the language of instruction is not English.
- Field-Based: Field-based programs are much more flexible than any other type of study abroad. Working within a thematic focus, students will study elements of the local culture, environment, or political system and complete their own independent study projects.
A program sponsor is the organization or institution that helps to fund or facilitate a study abroad program. Generally speaking, most students will find opportunities for study abroad through direct exchanges between their school and a partner institution. These partnerships, often long-standing, guarantee that students will be able to directly apply the credits earned at a foreign institution to their study at their home institution. Programs such as these are administered by the university, but students will need to take the initiative in finding housing and transportation.
Students can also use university connections to directly enroll in foreign schools, but unlike exchange programs, credit transfers aren’t guaranteed or automatic. If a school has a foreign campus, students may also be able to use this option to enroll directly in that branch, taking courses in a U.S. academic framework in a foreign country.
Colleges and universities aren’t the only source of study abroad opportunities. There are also a wealth of third-party nonprofit and pro-profit organizations that sponsor study abroad. Students can find out more about these organizations through their own web-based research, but since many often pursue affiliation with universities and colleges, campus-based advisors can also help students to enroll in these programs.
Your Study Abroad Options
Keep in mind that the ease with which you can study abroad, both in finding information, resources, and financial support, may have a lot to do with the school you choose to attend. Not all schools are equally invested in sending students overseas to partner colleges and universities. Some will simply have better resources available to students who want to pursue an education outside of their college campus.
A few schools, among them Goucher College and Soka University of America, actually require students to spend at least one semester or summer abroad in order to graduate. Others have simply put greater emphasis on foreign study for students, with some, like the University of San Diego, American University, Yale University, and Notre Dame University, sending 50% of their students to study abroad. If you don’t attend a school that focuses on study abroad that doesn’t mean you have to write it off, only that you may have to work a little harder to find resources, financing, and support on your own.
Regardless of the importance afforded to study abroad on your campus, you’ll have a wide range of interesting options for pursuing study abroad available to you. Students can opt for a traditional study abroad experience taking courses and living in a foreign country, or for something a little more unique as specialty programs are growing in number and popularity.
One example is California State University’s program for journalism students. This program aims at training the next generation of foreign correspondents, sending students to impoverished areas of Vietnam and Cambodia to get first-hand experience crafting news stories and broadcast pieces. Students not only get in-the-field experience that will be invaluable to their journalistic careers, they also spend a great deal of time helping the local communities in which they’re staying by assisting medical relief workers.
Other branches of the program, like one which sends students to South Africa, focus on giving local people a voice, with journalism students producing stories on the issues that directly affect those living and working in their local communities. These experiences often involve a fair amount of roughing it, but the response from students has been largely positive since the programs were first implemented in 2010.
Of course, not all study abroad programs are quite so adventurous. Students can also opt for much more traditional experiences that are just as educational, like Boston-based Emerson College’s semester abroad program. Through an exchange program, Emerson sends students to Kasteel Well, a Castle in the Netherlands. Students take courses and live in a 14th century castle, surrounded by a moat and lush gardens. In addition to courses, students also get a chance to travel to other cities in Europe, including Amsterdam, Berlin, and Madrid. If it sounds cool, that’s because it is. The program was ranked as the top study abroad program (on student satisfaction) by leading study abroad review website Abroad 101.
These are only two of the hundreds of different kinds of study abroad programs that exist at colleges and universities all over the United States. With a little research, most students will be able to find a study abroad experience that fits their needs, budget, and will help them see a bit of the world in an incredibly unique and potentially life-changing way.
The Student Perspective
While each student will have a different and unique experience during his or her time abroad, most report largely positive reactions to getting the chance to live and study in a country outside of the U.S.
Jenea Robinson, a theater major and junior at Rollins College, headed to India in the fall of her sophomore year to take part in SIT India: National Identity and the Arts, a program the studies Indian culture through art, religion, and architecture. One of the best aspects of the program, according to Robinson, was getting to travel. "I spent two months in the capital, Delhi, and another month traveling all around India," said Robinson. "I visited many places such as Jaipur, Orissa, Bodhgaya, Puri, Agra and Mussourie."
SIT programs aren’t as structured as many other study abroad programs, so Robinson got the chance to spend most of her time working on an independent study project, an experience that was unforgettable thanks to some rather large local residents. "I decided to study the Asian elephant in art, temples and religion," said Robinson. "It was an amazing experience! I lived in Kerala by myself for one month. During that month, I met over 80 elephants and even kissed and hugged an elephant named Lukshmi (she was beautiful)."
While study abroad can be amazing, it can also be pretty scary to take on a new country by yourself. Luckily, few students are totally alone in the process. Averi Gerberding, a student at USC Santa Barbara, spent a semester studying in Florence, Italy in 2012. While having been to Europe before, she wasn’t prepared for the challenges of navigating it on her own, but soon found that her fears were unfounded. "I was absolutely terrified once I first stepped off the plane, all by myself, into the bustling city of Florence," said Gerberding. "Yet after realizing that my apartment-mates were wonderful and fun people, I was able to let go of my fears and fully immerse myself in everything Italy, and the rest of Europe, had to offer."
For her, the chance to be fully immersed in Italian life and culture outweighed all of the cons. "The food was to die for; I have never tasted Italian food so rich and savory," she said. "The Italian people live so simply and happily that you can’t help but strike up a conversation with everyone possible. Even walking to school in the morning was an experience, as I was able to walk straight through the heart of Florence and gaze at all its intricate architecture."
Even if study abroad is challenging, at times, most say they wouldn’t change the experience for anything. Robinson is even ready to do it again. "The connections I made with the locals and students will last forever," she said. "It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I cannot wait to go back to India!"
Tips for Study Abroad
In need more guidance for your journey abroad? Use these tips to get started and travel smart.
- Do your homework. Before deciding on a study abroad program, make sure to learn as much as possible about the options available to you. There are hundreds of different programs out there, many of which offer vastly differing experiences for students. Learning about as many as possible will help you make the best decision when choosing a program.
- Get your documents in order. As soon as you sign up for a study abroad program, you’ll need to start getting your important documentation in order. This can include passports, visas, health insurance information, and even a list of important phone numbers. Before leaving, make copies of all of this information or store scans in a secure online location so you will have it on hand if the originals get lost or stolen.
- Compare costs. Before committing, compare costs to see if your investment might better be put towards a different type of experience.
- Set a budget. Study abroad can be pricey, so it’s essential to create and stick to a budget while you’re abroad. It’s also smart to find out ahead of time what the best options are for getting cash, as some methods charge hefty conversion fees and may eat away at your savings.
- Get an international student ID. International student IDs offer you the chance to get discounts at dozens of different museums, restaurants, movies, and online stores. Even better, with a study ID you may even be able to exchange currency at the airport at no charge. Only costing $22, these little cards are a great investment.
- Address safety. Safety is a major concern for many who choose to study abroad. Research which neighborhoods are best for young travelers, and find a group of fellow students who can all work together to stay safe. Students should also consider safety measures with regard to their health, establishing health insurance that will cover them abroad (if necessary) and looking into whether medications will be available or legal in their new country of residence.
- Document your trip.Studying abroad can be the experience of a lifetime, and it’s one that students don’t want to soon forget. Make sure to bring along a camera and consider journaling or blogging your experience so you can share it with others or just remember the details later on down the line.
- Invest in a guidebook. While the Internet is full of great information about every city in the world, it’s not always possible to secure an internet connection everywhere you want to go. Instead, find a great guidebook that you can tuck in your bag and carry with you as you explore your new city.
- Learn where your embassies and consulates are. While most students will have an uneventful and safe trip abroad, things can happen that can put students in danger. It’s important to learn where to turn to find help, so look up the addresses and phone numbers of the American embassy or consulate in your host city. Students should also enroll in the STEP program through the U.S. government. This program makes it easier for government agencies to help students in an emergency and will keep them up-to-date on important announcements.
- Address basic services. While students might take for granted how easy it is to open a bank account or use a cell phone in the U.S., once abroad things can get a bit more complicated. Students need to figure out a cell phone plan for their trip as well as determine the best way to access their accounts before ever leaving the country.
- Ensure your credits will transfer. While getting a chance to travel to another country is perhaps the most exciting part of study abroad, the real purpose is to continue your college education. Make sure the time you spend in courses won’t be wasted by getting approval for transferring your credits to your home college before leaving on your trip.
Resources for Study Abroad
Deciding to spend a semester or a year abroad is a big decision. Here are some resources that can help you to learn more about study abroad programs, find funding, and reduce some of the stress of living thousands of miles from home once you’ve arrived in your host country.
Read up on study abroad opportunities, resources, and other information through these great general resources.
- The Center for Global Education: Here, students can find a wealth of resources for study abroad, including a list of programs abroad, information about countries and culture, and health and safety tips.
- American Institute for Foreign Study: Head to the AIFS site to learn about the foreign study programs offered by this organization.
- StudyAbroad.com: This site is a great place to research study abroad, with a directory of programs, articles and blogs on study abroad, and helpful guides to make the experience easier on students.
- CIEE: CIEE, a nonprofit organization, offers a wide range of international exchange opportunities, not only to study but to teach, work, and train.
- StudentsAbroad: This government site can help students ensure they have the right travel docs, get help in case of an emergency, and even learn how to do things like vote when in a foreign country.
- StudiesAbroad.com: The ISA is a popular study abroad provider and their website is a great place to find information about the programs they offer as well as resources for study abroad in general.
Financial Aid and Scholarships
One of the major concerns many students have about study abroad is the cost. These resources can help you look into scholarships, grants, and financing that can make your study abroad dream a reality.
- AIFS International Scholarships: AIFS offers a number of different types of scholarships and grants for study abroad, with some focusing on bringing minority students overseas and others available to just about anyone who writes a winning proposal.
- Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship: Through the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, this scholarship offers awards to students who receive Federal Pell Grant funding.
- Scholarship and Grant Database: While you may want to check out what your own school has to offer, the University of Minnesota has compiled and impressive database of scholarships and grants for study abroad that any student can benefit from browsing.
- IIEPassport Study Abroad Funding: The Institute of International Education is also home to a great directory of scholarships, fellowships, grants, and internships for study abroad.
- Phi Kappa Phi Study Abroad Grants: The Phi Kappa Phi honor society offers 50 grants of $1,000 each year. Learn how to apply and get funding from the group through their website.
- Abroad 101: Abroad 101 is an excellent resource for any student considering study abroad. The site is home to an immense database of programs and scholarships. Even better, there are reviews from students on nearly all of them so you’ll get some insights on what a program is really like before you sign up.
Bringing your smartphone or tablet along for the trip? Outfit it with these apps that can make your adjustment to life abroad a little easier and more fun.
- Skype: Keeping in touch with family and friends back home can get pricey if you’re placing large numbers of international calls. Another option is to sign up for Skype, which offers free online video chat everywhere in the world.
- World Lens: Can’t read the signs at the airport or on the street? Can’t figure out what the daily special is on a menu? Take a photo with this app and it will instantly translate the text for you.
- WhatsApp, TextNow, and TextPlus: All of these apps can save you big on international texting plans by letting you text for free right in the application.
- World Customs: This app is a great one-stop place for information about customs, cultural information, and facts on your host country. Who knows, it may even help you avoid a serious faux pas.
- Yelp: Find addresses, phone numbers, or even just a good place to eat through this incredibly useful site’s app that has resources for cities around the world.
- Postagram: If you love to send postcards but don’t want the hassle of going to the post office, use this app to send cards to friends and family back home. Just take a picture with your phone, add your message, and for just .99 cents Postagram will take care of the rest.
- XE Currency: Instead of just guessing at conversion rates, use this app to know just how much you’re spending on everything you buy while you’re away from home.
- Convert Any Unit Free: Because the U.S. insists on using different systems of measurement than the rest of the world, you may not always know how to convert metric or Celsius into more familiar intervals. This app takes care of it for you in a snap.
While many students may find study abroad to be an intimidating idea, the reality is that there is a ton of information out there that can help you learn just what it entails, how to fund your trip, and even what to do to ensure your safety once you arrive. It may not always be easy to get a trip off of the ground, but once you get there you, just like the students who’ve gone before you, will undoubtedly find it to be one of the best and most amazing experiences of your life.