Studying abroad may be that defining moment in your education that will change your life. Nothing will be quite the same afterward. Your perspectives will be global, your attitudes will be international and you'll have experiences your friends who stayed home just can't match. Your resume will be more attractive, in some cases your language proficiency will be advanced, and you will have developed lifelong friendships. Most importantly, studying abroad is an education in the world, and yourself.
The largest misconception that prevents students from participating in studying abroad is its perceived inaccessibility. Students who do go abroad are often amazed at how easy it was to put the whole thing together. Financial aid is often available, and every major field of study can partake. It's as easy as a working through a checklist. The following information is just that, though it should be used only as a guideline - each university or college has their own study abroad policy.
WHY STUDY ABROAD?
The most obvious reason why students study abroad is to earn academic credit. Ok, maybe the most obvious is that you want to escape Collegetown, USA for a year of new adventures, but academic credits is right up there too. You should consider the type of credit you will earn on your study abroad program. Will you earn credit towards your major or elective credit only? Will you receive grades or Pass/Fail credit only? You may study abroad to earn upper division credits in your major field or you may be overseas to earn some of your core or general education hours your freshman year.
Additionally you may find that only an international program can offer the real expertise you desire in your education. Australia is a great place to find a marine biology program, the engineering labs in Sweden may exceed your facilities at your home institution, and Peace studies in Geneva would offer an insight that couldn't be matched in Nebraska.
Language Acquisition and Practical Experience
The world market place is shrinking rapidly and many employment doors open for employees with second language skills. Coupling your study abroad classwork with an international internship is an incredible way to gain some real world experience and improve your foreign language proficiency. How do you say "photocopy" in French?
International experience is ranked high among many employers as a critical asset for prospective employees. Studying abroad shows that you are resourceful, adventurous, internationally minded, and diverse.
Experience of a Lifetime
In a couple years you will forget the name of your Literature professor in Grenoble or the name of your dorm in Beijing, but you'll never forget the friends you made or the incredible experiences you shared.
HOW DO I FIND A PROGRAM?
Visit your study abroad office! Your first consultation should be with your study abroad coordinator at your campus. Some colleges may have a designated faculty or administrator who performs this function. Other colleges have full-blown study abroad offices with advisors specializing in regional destinations. Chances are your university has the best programs for you. By going on a study abroad program developed at your school, you are more likely to be able to utilize your financial aid and receive credit for the experience.
If you can't find the right program on your campus or if your school allows you to participate in external programs then you should conduct an internet search. The best place to start is www.studenttraveler.com. You can search for programs by country or field of study. Crucial information like cost, description, and program highlights are included. You can also e-mail programs directly for additional info.
WHO SHOULD I MEET WITH BEFORE I GO?
Study Abroad Advisor
Your study abroad advisor's job is to make sure you are prepared for your experience and that you'll gain the most from your study abroad program. They probably won't tell you exactly where to go, its up to you to do the research. They also won't apply for your passport for you; however, if you can't figure out how to get a passport you probably shouldn't be leaving home anyway.
Many universities provide an academic contract, which is your insurance as to the credit you'll receive upon return form overseas. Your academic advisor can tell you what type of credit you're likely to receive and how it will fit into your overall degree.
Financial Aid Advisor
You will need to work closely with this administrator unless Mom and Dad will be hooking you up. Most study abroad participants utilize some form of financial aid for their experience. The most common aid used for study abroad is student loans. Some financial aid offices require a vast amount of hoop jumping to insure that you will actually be receiving credit for your experience.
Mom and/or Dad
They might not be financing your adventure but its still key to keep them in the loop. You probably want to explain how this experience is integral to your degree program, how the experience will enhance your resume and insure a great job upon graduation (and depending on your relationship is, what you expect to learn on the beaches of Rio.) It's also important to keep the old folks happy, as they will probably be taking care of logistical concerns while you are out of the country.
WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO DO?
Get a Passport
You can apply for a passport at post offices, and county and municipal offices. Apply several months before you leave, especially if you need visas from foreign embassies. To apply for a passport, you first need to complete Application Form DSP-11, which you can pick up at the offices mentioned previously. http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html
As soon as you receive your passport, make a copy of the front page that has all your identification information, and keep it in a separate place from your passport. If your passport is lost or stolen, the copy will make it easier to get a new one.
Get a Visa
Do some research and find out if your country of destination requires a visa. If so what kind of visa will you need? Sixty percent of the world's countries require visas for any length of stay. If you travel, you may need visas for other countries. Apply early for visas. Processing time varies widely. Embassy addresses and phone numbers can be found at www.GoAbroad.com.
Get your Shots
The Center for Disease Control offers the most up-to-date information regarding vaccinations and shots. You should also consult your doctor.
In addition to basic travel insurance coverage provided by things like the student discount International Student Identity Card (ISIC), or even some credit cards, you should take additional comprehensive travel insurance. Your coverage should include medical evacuation and repatriation. Three reliable and reputable sources are: HTH Worldwide, (www.hthstudents.com), CMI Insurance Specialists (www.studyabroadinsurance.com), and Cultural Insurance Services International (www.culturalinsurance.com).
Develop a Budget
Consider the in-country costs before you go. You should develop a budget and live by it. Consider the costs of optional excursions, gifts, school supplies, internet access, in-country transportation and general living costs. Many a student has gotten a little carried away at the clubs in Athens or Bangkok and spent their semester budgets their first week abroad.
Get Ready for Culture Shock
You're going to experience culture shock, no matter how cool you are, regardless of how diverse you are, and with no regard to your language ability. One of the ways to have a better experience is to have realistic expectations. Read everything about your future home and really prepare. Moving there is the ultimate test.
You won't need make-up in Nepal, your blow dryer won't work in Madrid, you'll probably never use your baseball glove in Botswana, and you can buy cheap sweaters in Ecuador. Pack light! Research your destination in advance, find out what kind of items you must bring (for example, mosquito netting or tampons) and find out what items you can purchase cheaply there.
Now that you've got a light pack, a little money, your passport and visa, a sense of direction, parental blessing, and academic incentive, all you need is a study abroad destination. The world is waiting. We'll leave that up to you.
Photos by Jeff Booth