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The Lure of Study Abroad

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The Lure of Study Abroad

From the MCG 2009 edition By Rochelle Genecov

Have you dreamt about visiting international landmarks like the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower or the Sistine Chapel? Want to get a jump-start on your future? If so, you should consider studying abroad during college.

There may be no other time in your life when you can travel to another country for a semester or full academic year without the pressures of a real job, family or other responsibilities that you don't yet have.

According to the Open Doors Profile of the U.S. Study Abroad Students 2007 report, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of U.S. students studying abroad has increased by 150 percent during the last decade. This increase can be explained, at least in part, by the emphasis employers are now placing on foreign languages and international backgrounds.

"The skills gained by studying overseas and possibly working overseas will be valued in the future when it comes to applying for a job," explains Maral Dadourian, senior international officer at Regent's College in the United Kingdom. "Employers are looking more and more to hire graduates who come from an international background as the work force is becoming increasingly global."

Les Brighton, the international director at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, says that studying abroad "adds a whole extra layer to your college experience. You will get your intellectual and professional training, but also the experience of having lived and operated successfully in another country."

You can also earn credits toward your college degree while traveling. And who knows? The perspective you gain from studying abroad may even help you get a job or get into graduate school or medical school later on.

According to the Open Doors Profile, nearly half -- 49.9 percent -- of American undergrads who study abroad go for one semester. Another 43.4 percent opt for shorter programs in the summer, January or other programs of less than eight weeks. Only 6.7 percent spend a full academic year abroad.

Of course, if you really want to immerse yourself in another culture and spend a longer period abroad, you could consider attending college at a foreign university. Malcolm Taylor, the head of international recruitment at the University of Glamorgan in the United Kingdom, says his university "recruit[s] students after they finish high school for a three-year bachelor's process. After the second year, we offer internship opportunities for students who want to work abroad."

When Do Students Typically Study Abroad?

Most students study abroad during their junior year of college (about 34.2 percent, according to the Open Doors report) or during the summer after their sophomore or junior year. By then, students are settled into their school lives and can leave the nest of their home university without worrying about feeling like freshmen again when they return. Plus, by junior year, most students have fulfilled their basic requirements.

Where Can I Study Abroad?

Ever heard the phrase, "you've got the world at your fingertips?" That's never been truer for students considering studying abroad than it is today. According to the Open Doors report, the United Kingdom is the most popular destination.

"The common language assists students to make the UK a study destination, while quick transport links into Europe enable students to easily sample continental cultures," Taylor says. Of course, if you're looking for someplace a little more exotic, but still want to speak English, you might want to consider studying in New Zealand or Australia.

Increasingly, though, more students are studying in countries where English isn't the primary language. Many American students hoping to beef up their foreign language skills flock to Italy, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Greece, Germany and Ireland. But the hottest study-abroad trends are found in Latin and South American countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador. Asian countries like China and Japan are also huge; the number of American students studying in China increased by 38.2 percent between 2004 - 2005 and 2005 - 2006, according to the Open Doors report.

"I think there's certainly a recognition that China, India and Japan are growing faster than any other countries culturally and economically," says Eric Cross, the dean of cultural affairs at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. "Many people realize that they have a substantial advantage in the business world if they can speak Chinese or Japanese."

Will I Have a Chance to Travel While I'm Studying Abroad?

One of the perks of studying abroad is that you can visit other cities or towns in the country where you're studying. It may even be easy to travel outside of your host country. Sometimes, study-abroad programs organize excursions for participants. If your program doesn't do this, take advantage of weekends, and consider scheduling some time before your program begins or after it ends to do some exploring for yourself.

Where Can I Find Out More About Different Study Abroad Programs?

Your academic advisor and, if your college has one, your school's study-abroad office will provide you with information about your study-abroad choices. But you may also want to speak with students who have studied in a program or country you're considering. Even if you don't know anyone who has studied abroad, most programs will gladly put you in touch with their alumni.

You can also consult many online sources, including the IIE's site (www.iiepassport.org) and private company sites, such as StudyAbroad.com and GoAbroad.com.

Studying Abroad Seems Expensive. How Am I Going to Pay For This?

You don't have to be rich to study abroad. Plenty of scholarships and loans are available for students looking to study abroad. In fact, there's a whole database full of them! The IIE's sister website, StudyAbroadFunding.org, is dedicated to study-abroad funding resources. Of course, if you're participating in a college-sponsored program, you should check with the school as well.

But What About the Current Economic Situation? Will Studying Abroad Still Be Affordable in a Few Years?

Cross already sees the effect of U.S. economic turmoil on Newcastle's study- abroad program. "We hear from people who are really interested in coming, but with the dollar [so weak], they postpone it and hope the exchange rate will get better in a year's time," he says.

Don't let the economic climate deter you from studying abroad in other countries. The weak dollar may encourage more students to study in developing countries in Asia and South America, because the American dollar will go further there.

What Are the Benefits of Participating in a Study-Abroad Program Offered by My Own School Versus One Offered by Another Institution?

Many American colleges and universities offer their own study-abroad programs, and most have a study-abroad office that will advise students looking for such programs. If you participate in a study-abroad program through your college, you'll have more assurance that credits will transfer and financial aid will continue. While it's helpful if your own college offers a program you like, don't worry if your school doesn't offer many (or any) study-abroad options. Many other universities, as well as private firms, offer great programs.

If you're interested in a program offered by a college other than your own or one sponsored by a private company or non-college organization, confirm that your school will approve the transfer of credits. Also keep in mind that you may not receive the same level or form of financial aid for an outside program. Before you commit to a program, make sure you speak with officials at your college to find out how they will handle these matters.

Wow! This All Sounds Great. I Want To Go Now! How Do I Choose a Program?

If you're sold on the idea of studying abroad, ask yourself some questions: How long do I want to be abroad? What countries or cultures interest me most? Do I want to study in a large city or in a smaller town? Do I want to travel extensively while I'm studying abroad? Also think about what you want in terms of academic offerings, cost of the overall program and student composition. Once you've identified your preferences, start looking for a program that fits most of them. Don't worry if you don't have all of the answers yet. But remember, you're more likely to get the most out of your experience if you plan ahead.

Rochelle Genecov is a freelance writer and editor.

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