Sorry about the blog silence lately. I’ve been having a hectic few weeks with major projects for classes being due, sorority elections, summer internships, interviews, and to top it all off: my computer has some sort of browser hijacker. Whew! Even just typing this out is stressing me out.
However, all my busy work has gotten me thinking lately about this whole studying abroad experience. I’ll admit, I get a bit peeved when people assume I’m bumming around in China not really doing anything. That’s just what my Instagram looks like.
My study abroad program is actually pretty demanding. And fitting in class work, Chinese, and saying good-bye to Shanghai has left me pressed for time.
This has led to a lot of reflections on the disconnect between what people tell you study abroad is like, and what my study abroad experience has been like. My study abroad year hasn’t exactly lined up with normal expectations about what a semester abroad looks like.
I’m starting to think there are a whole lot of mis-assumptions out there about studying abroad that warrant our attention.
I’ve done the backpacking thing for a whole year and taken a Gap year. And now, I’ll have studied abroad for a full year as well. Going into my year in China, I had a lot of thoughts about studying abroad; and I’ll admit, some of them were a bit negative.
Honestly, I didn’t really see the point in studying abroad. If I wanted to go experience a new country, I could just travel or move there. When I was living in Australia, I knew more about the country than some of the Study Abroad students I met because I lived there longer, had a job there, and had Australian friends.
What’s the point in wasting your college tuition on that when you can travel for cheaper and longer on your own? Condescending traveler moment alert: I viewed study abroad as an intro to long term traveling. Basically like learning to ride a bike but with the training wheels on since you have a system and coordinator to take care of your problems if you majorly fuck up.
Life has a way of making you eat your words and learn some humility sometimes, am I right?
For starters, studying abroad hasn’t been the walk in the park I thought it would be. Despite having traveled to China a few times before and teaching English here, it’s still been a challenging and testing year. I’ve been forced to get outside my comfort shell, try new things, and basically grow as a person. In a nutshell, everything you expect to happen when you’re traveling.
Based off of what I see online and hear, I’m not the only one who has had perceptions about studying abroad that have completely missed the mark. Studying abroad is unique to every individual and to the program you choose but yet it seems to be categorized into one small label.
Studying abroad is so much more than that!
Of course, I can only speak on my own experiences, but here are some of the most common misconceptions I think people have about studying abroad:
1. Everyone studies abroad in Europe
Nope. A lot of people study abroad in Europe. But there’s a difference between a lot and everyone.
This is not to bash on Europe: Europe is a fascinating place and you’d be crazy not to want to go there! But that doesn’t mean it has to be your only option for studying abroad or travel.
There are bajillions of study abroad programs out there. Shop around! While I’ve had plenty of friends go to Europe, I’ve also had friends study abroad in some super cool more obscure locations such as Israel and Thailand. I’ve even heard of a semester at sea program where you spend a semester on a boat traveling around the world!
Almost every country has a study abroad program. Look around! Just because the majority of people go to Europe does not mean that you have to. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, but it doesn’t hurt to weigh your options. You never know what awesome unique program you might stumble upon! Work with rhinos in Africa? Sign me up.
My personal suggestion for choosing a study abroad location? Go somewhere you wouldn’t have the chance to go to otherwise! You never know what that experience might lead to. And the world global means so much more than popular tourist destinations.
2. Studying abroad is expensive
Between my gap year and study abroad year, people seem to come to the conclusion that I have a magic tree that grows money. If you have that tree-give me some seeds so I can plant my own!
Reality: I’m not particularly well off. I’m not poor, but I weigh in on the middle class side of things. And as a college student, I don’t have that much stored in personal savings.
But that’s the thing: travel isn’t inherently expensive. And studying abroad doesn’t have to be either. Pick a cheap country (Asia for example) and you could actually be saving money. Lots of colleges include financial aid programs to help their students study abroad. In my case, all of my financial aid and scholarships are applied directly to my study abroad program making it very affordable!
Are you interested in learning a new language? There are tons of scholarships for critical languages; which are less commonly spoken languages in the US that the government has deemed important because of their strategic interests for the United States.
Exhibit A: Chinese! I’m currently on a Boren scholarship which gave me a lot of money to study Chinese for the year. This particular scholarship involves working for the government in your target language for a year after graduation and has special priority hiring for recipients. If you’re considering government work-this is the scholarship for you! (You get a free trip to DC too.)
Because of scholarships and aid, my year in China has ended up being completely paid for. Which, believe it or not, means it’s cheaper for me to be abroad than studying at home in the US. I acknowledge that I have been very fortunate; but if I can do it-so can you. There are tons of opportunities out there: go seek them out!
Make sure to discuss with your study abroad office to see what aid and programs your college can provide.
Other scholarships to consider for studying abroad: Benjamin Gilman; Critical Language Scholarship
3. You basically won’t have classes
This commonly reported Buzzfeed occurrence particularly irks me-probably because it doesn’t apply to my study abroad program at all! It’s true that your classes will probably not be held to the same academic standard as your classes back home. However, this is also completely dependent on the type of study abroad program you pick.
My program places a huge emphasis on language-meaning I’ve had a ton of work in that section which has in no way been easy to breeze through or blow off. I’m also currently writing a research paper which included my own primary research and field work on top of two other English classes.
My English classes are not of the same caliber as courses my university offers; however, I am still quite busy and have been doing a ton of course work learning about China and intensively studying the language.
Perhaps some study abroad courses are more party based; however, it would be wrong to assume that they all are. Pick your program carefully to get the most out of your semester that meets the goals you wish to accomplish by going abroad. And if your study abroad experience IS like this, it doesn’t necessarily means other people’s will be.
4. You only meet other Americans
If you’re only going abroad to have an easy semester and party with other Americans, well, we obviously have some core differences. Americans are great and can be awesome people. But you know what? So are people from other countries.
Likely, your study abroad program will consist of Americans and might be majority Americans. But make sure you find a program that will also integrate you into the community since you’re there to be learning about a different culture in the first place! If you want to put on your resume that you received global experience and exposure: then you actually have to do that!
This year I’ve met plenty of cool Americans. But I also have Chinese friends whom I hang out with outside of class! My program emphasizes creating these relationships: so it’s happened. Lots of programs have things like homestays which are a great way to begin experiencing and getting involved in another culture.
If you’re looking to really experience and understand another culture-which you should be as that’s kind of the point of studying abroad-make sure you pick a program that makes efforts to get you involved with locals and integrate you into the community. It will only enrich your semester abroad in the end.
5. You’ll miss out on things back home
Say it with me: I won’t give into FOMO.
Honestly, you should be more afraid of what you’ll miss out on by not going abroad; because I can promise you that you’ll come home with some stories. You’re going to be way too busy having fun, meeting new people, and exploring to miss your university enough to want to leave.
College will still be there when you get back.
This year has been one of the craziest, most hectic, and most rewarding years of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Get outside your comfort zone, leave your shell, and go explore a new place. If one thing is for sure, you won’t regret the decision to study abroad.
Have you ever studied abroad? What are common misconceptions you run into about a semester abroad?