Far From Home – Myths and Realities of Study Abroad
René Sanchez understands better than most Americans why Oxford, England, is called “The City of Dreaming Spires.” As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida, Sanchez spent dreamlike days wandering Oxford’s 800-year-old streets and marveling at the golden towers, domes and spires of Oxford University. “Oxford is such an amazing town,” he says. “The entire city is this massive, gorgeous, castle-like structure. It’s like something out of a fantasy novel.”
The setting might have been fantastic, but Sanchez had a practical purpose for visiting England—a for-credit program at Oxford Brookes University that enabled him to take niche business and psychology courses not readily available at USF. “With study abroad, all of a sudden you enter into a completely alien culture,” he says. “You learn a lot about yourself, and it makes you appreciate your own country as well.”
Although students and administrators alike tout the benefits of study abroad, only about 1 percent of U.S. college students take advantage of the opportunity. This low number worries educators who say Americans must become more cosmopolitan if they are to thrive in a 21st century marked by globalization and geopolitical turmoil. As a result, many U.S. colleges and universities now make international education a top priority. If you dream of studying in London, Tokyo or even Timbuktu, you’ll find more help than ever to make it happen. A good first step is to tackle some of the basic myths and realities of education far from home.
MYTH #1: “It’s Too Expensive.”
Although some students burn through mountains of euros or yen while overseas, others actually save money. The key is to budget carefully and take maximum advantage of financial aid, says Wendy Williamson, an international education adviser at Western Michigan University and author of “Study Abroad 101.” “There are lots of different scholarships and grants that are specific to study abroad,” she notes.
While some financial aid programs are nationally known and highly competitive, local grants and scholarships are more widely available. The University of Chicago, for example, gives 100 students up to $2,000 to study languages over the summer in a foreign setting. To make study abroad affordable for all students, the University System of Georgia created STARS, a $300,000 funding program to help students earn money toward their study-abroad experience.
MYTH #2:“Studying Overseas Will Delay My Graduation.”
Another misconception is that study abroad will stall your academic progress. Some students wrongly believe credits they earn overseas won’t transfer, or that they’ll be forced to take classes outside their degree requirements. The truth is, most majors typically require elective, foreign-language and other courses that are easily satisfied at foreign institutions. And increasingly, American colleges and universities are integrating diverse study-abroad programs directly into their curricula.
Students at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, study pressing urban issues in the Windy City, then spend part of the summer in London examining issues there. “They’re continuing their work in the classroom,” says Chris Deegan, director of UIC’s study-abroad office. They’re simply in another form of classroom that happens to be thousands of miles away.”
Even students in the life sciences can take advantage of international programs tied directly to their coursework, notes Kathleen Sideli, Director of the Office of Overseas Study at Indiana University. In one IU program, biology students spend 15 hours a day traipsing through Costa Rican rain forests; in another, students don scuba gear for a close-up look at the coral reefs of the Cayman Islands.
MYTH #3: “I Can’t Handle It.”
Excited by the thought of a semester in Paris or Tokyo, some students begin making serious preparations but abruptly cancel their plans midstream due to fear. After all, in addition to being exciting, the prospect of living on your own in an exotic locale can be a bit scary. Sideli says it’s important to anticipate some last-minute jitters. These fears tend to be manageable or even groundless. Many students, for example, worry too much about language. An excellent student of French might feel unnecessarily nervous about, say, communicating with Parisian cab drivers. Others fear being thousands of miles away from family and friends. However, the vast majority of students find that, once they arrive, their concerns go away and they have an incredibly positive and rewarding experience.
MYTH #4: I want to study for longer than one year but there’s nowhere to go.
Students do indeed have the option of studying abroad all four years at a foreign university that follows the American curriculum and offers an American degree.
There are colleges in countries all over the world offering U.S. accredited degrees, including Ireland, Great Britain, France and Australia. For example, students can receive a U.S. accredited degree at Regent’s College in London. The degree is awarded by Webster University in St. Louis. Regent’s serves as one of Webster’s international campuses.
Like universities in the U.S., these institutions offer transfer and study-abroad opportunities, financial assistance, and internships. In addition, many universities overseas disburse U.S. federal loans and offer scholarships.
Overseas schools offer a diversity of nationalities one would be hard pressed to find on most American campuses. For American students wanting to meet students from 50 to 100 different countries, these universities are ideal, providing an “international dimension” to higher education – perhaps the most heavily weighed factor for those who are considering study abroad.
Foreign universities have their own dormitories on campus and place the same emphasis on the quality of student life as you would find in any institution in the U.S. The campus life is meant to be similar to that in the U.S. while at the same time bringing something from the host culture.
Types of Programs
Once you’ve decided to give it a go overseas, it’s time to choose a program. Williamson notes that seasoned travelers usually prefer a no-frills approach. Some might, for example, enroll in a foreign institution through an exchange network and take care of housing, meals and other arrangements themselves. Others might prefer comprehensive programs offered by universities or private firms. “These providers basically take care of everything for you,” Williamson explains. “They make the housing and insurance arrangements, process the applications, plan excursions and trips and have an on-site director.”
International Studies Abroad is a good example of the latter. The Austin, Texas–based firm offers immersion-style programs in England, France, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Depending on the location and other factors, month-long programs range from about $2,500 to $3,900, and semester programs range from about $6,500 to $13,000, notes ISA representative Elizabeth Lock.
The structures of study-abroad programs vary widely. In so-called “island programs,” you might travel to Barcelona with your American professor, who would then work with a resident director to present an extensive academic and cultural program. As an exchange or “direct-enroll” student, you might be the only American in a class of Spanish nationals in Barcelona. Most undergraduates participate in programs arranged through a U.S. college or university. This generally permits academic credits to be transferred. If you’re interested in a different arrangement (such as “direct enroll” programs), be sure to check whether the credits will transfer.
Length of stay and location are other key considerations. The Open Doors 2004 report referred to below found that about half of all U.S. students now opt for programs lasting eight weeks or less rather than the traditional semester or academic year abroad. Deegan of UIC cautions that less time abroad may result in a somewhat shallower experience.
Europe continues to be the No. 1 study-abroad destination for American students. According to Open Doors 2004, an annual report on international education exchange sponsored by the U.S. State Department, in 2002-2003, a record 174,629 U.S. college students received credit for studying in other countries, a 9 percent increase from the 2001-2002 academic year.
In what it calls the “largest quantitative survey of study-abroad alumni,” the Institute for the International Education of Students received responses from 3,400 students who studied abroad from 1950 to 1999. The survey found that an overwhelming majority of respondents reported a variety of educational, career, intercultural, interpersonal and social benefits. Indeed, completing a study-abroad program can do much more than spice up your résumé and broaden your mind. It can change your life.
The potential for such positive change led The University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., to actually require all its students to study abroad. “I say to parents, ‘Your children will be transformed by their junior year. Expect them to be more independent, self-reliant young people,’” says Margee Ensign, dean of the School of International Studies. “We see this time and time again.”
If you’re interested in studying abroad, you’ll want to take full advantage of Web sites that can help you research private and university programs; find grants and scholarships; learn about foreign cultures; track U.S. government travel advisories and much more. Here’s a sampling:
- IIE Passport, a Web site operated by the Washington, D.C.–based Institute of International Education, includes a searchable database of more than 5,000 study-abroad opportunities worldwide.
- The University of Delaware’s Center for International Studies is dedicated to working with students who are interested in spending a summer semester year or all of their college years abroad.
- U.S. Department of State Tips for Students is a clearinghouse for health and safety information. The site lists tips and links on travel warnings crime prevention medical insurance emergency contacts and other subjects.
- What’s Up with Culture? is an award-winning Web site created by The University of the Pacific in Stockton Calif. that helps students adjust to foreign cultures — and readjust to life in the United States once they come home.
- The British Council USA promotes study abroad in the United Kingdom which is by far the most popular destination for American students. The council’s Web site includes a pre-departure guide tips on financial aid and more.
Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.