And away we go!

With over 300 000 students leaving the U.S. every year to study abroad, many people are wondering: with a plethora of education opportunities across America, why are students opting for places like the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Costa Rica, Australia and Japan to get a higher education? Well, students who make the decision to study abroad are choosing to challenge their sense of comfort and broaden their horizons. And they are certainly not afraid of a little adventure.

Studying abroad

Students who choose to study abroad are making a conscious and informed choice to earn all or part of their degree in a foreign country. This is not the same thing as choosing to take a little trip to Ireland or Brazil. This is a full-fledged commitment to live and learn under the domain of another nation’s education system. Granted, a baccalaureate degree is an international standard that any nation offering University undergraduate education must meet, but it still means obtaining proper documentation – passports, study visas, etc. – to be able to pursue higher learning abroad.

So, what does a student need to consider before making the choice to study outside of the U.S.? Well first, they need to pick a school and a country that fits their needs. For example, students who want to learn in their native tongue (let’s say English or Spanish for many students in the U.S.), picking a school and a nation that fits that bill is a must. This is why so many American students wind up in the U.K. (nearly 40,000 per year) and Spain (a little over 30,000 per year) when enrolling in study abroad programs. Students also need to consider the culture factor when picking a school. In other words, do they want an experience that is similar to the U.S. experience or one that is completely different? Second, students choosing to study outside the U.S. should also be aware of how the courses they take and the degree they earn will translate when they return home. For example, will a B.Sc. earned in Iceland be fully recognized in the U.S. when the student returns home and applies for a Masters’ degree or a job? Thirdly, study abroad students need to decide whether they will be applying directly to a certain university in a certain country or use a company (of which there are many) who will facilitate their application to a school in a foreign nation. These companies charge a premium for this service, however many students choose this route because of the expertise these companies provide. They also need to decide on duration: do they want to spend a semester, a year or several years at the university they have selected?

These are just a few of the considerations a student should keep in mind before choosing to study abroad. That said, students should remember two important things: that they are going to learn in a foreign country and that certain technical and logistical issues need to be evaluated before making a commitment to a particular nation or school.

Why study abroad?

If the previous paragraph didn’t scare students off (and it likely didn’t), then let’s dive into the benefits of studying abroad. First, studying outside of the U.S. exposes students to different cultures, languages and traditions. It allows them to broaden their horizons and expand their worldview. For those who choose a country like France, Germany or Costa Rica – and elect to learn in those languages – it is among the best ways to master a foreign tongue. Studying in another country also allows students to see how other education systems approach higher learning. While the U.S. colleges that students may have been considering might lean more toward a lecture and research methodology, some foreign schools might put a heavy emphasis on cooperative education and work experiences. Also, some experts believe that employers and graduate schools look more favorably on student applications and CVs that include a study abroad experience.

There are also the intangibles that students experience outside of the classroom. They are likely to make friendships that will last a lifetime, driven by the bond that develops when people are away from the comfort of home. Certainly, the same argument could be made for students who leave home to attend college in a neighboring state, but there is something about the foreign experience that amplifies and strengthens the friendships that study abroad students proport to develop. Students will also foster their sense of resilience since they are building a new support system while their friends and family live their lives back home. From a life experience standpoint, they will see parts of the world that will leave an indelible impression on them, mostly because they are becoming immersed in the culture and not simply stopping by for a vacation or visit. Studying abroad can be a life altering experience that shapes a young person’s future in a way that staying at home might not provide.

Who should study abroad?

While the benefits of studying abroad are pretty clear, the decision to go to a foreign nation for higher learning is something that appeals to students who relish challenges and new opportunities. Generally speaking, a strong study abroad candidate is self-confident and independent. They don’t mind making their own decisions and look forward to new situations and meeting new people. They should also have some experience with being away from home. The last thing students who jets off to Spain for an education adventure want is to have their experience cut short by homesickness. That said, students who go to another country for school are likely to encounter some homesickness and should feel they have the strength to persevere until they adjust to their new environment. They should also put plans in place to foster contact with home to keep their family ties and friendship bonds in tact while they are away.

Study abroad students are also good students. This doesn’t mean that they are at the top of their class – it just means that their work ethic is strong and they want to learn. Studying abroad is not a vacation: it’s work! Earning a degree – whether at home or abroad – is a challenging endeavor. Add in that fact that students are adapting to a different culture and education system, and it becomes clear that a solid academic work ethic is a must if students hopes to be successful.

The financial side of the study abroad experience is also something to consider. It is certainly no secret that the cost of attending college or university in the U.S. is often very expensive (running anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per year – tuition and lodging in – for a pretty ordinary program). While a study abroad experience isn’t cheap, it is often comparable to the cost of going to school back home. What needs to be factored in are things like travel and the cost of living in the place students elect to go to school. That said, for most programs, students do not need to be scared away by the costs because they are often quite comparable to what it costs in the U.S. 

What will the schools want?

There are a slew of specific requirements for the multitude of program offerings out there but, to keep things simple, study abroad students can expect any university to which they apply to ask for confirmation of grades (whether in GPA or grade level format) in the form of a transcript and proof of high school graduation. If students meet those basic requirements, the schools might then ask for letters of recommendation (academic and personal), a list of accomplishments and awards, and relevant work experiences. They might also ask for passport photos and an entrance essay that demonstrates how serious they are about attending their school. Some schools even do an admissions interview on an online video platform like Skype. Once a student gets into a program, they can find out what the host nation where they will be attending requires of them. For example, in almost all cases, students can expect to apply for a student visa – something that can’t be obtained overnight so planning is a must. A student visa also cannot be obtained until students are accepted into a university program. And finally, one important warning: study abroad students need to pay close attention to deadlines. As a general rule, students should begin the planning and application process nine months to a year in advance.

What does studying beyond the U.S. really offer to students?

From an educational standpoint, there is no question that a study abroad experience has plenty to offer. Students will earn their degree – a credential that only 30 per cent of the U.S. population has achieved – and the opportunity to take what they’ve learned and apply it to a life of fulfilling work. In other words, at a bare minimum, students are setting themselves apart from 70 per cent of their counterparts. Beyond that accomplishment, study abroad students are demonstrating their ability to earn a degree with the added challenge of studying beyond the comforts of home. While doing this they are demonstrating their tenacity, resilience and adaptability. In most cases, students who leave the U.S. to study develop strong leadership and interpersonal skills. These skills are tremendously valuable when it comes to venturing into the world of work. And one more thing: study abroad students leave their education experience with an established international network of contacts. In a best-case scenario, they will earn a degree that brings with it a view of the world that is more open, compassionate, and all-encompassing. Whether students study away from home for a month, a semester or for the duration of an entire degree, the benefits are exceptional.

By Sean Dolan