First off, you might ask why I’m qualified to write on this particular subject. I graduated from Michigan State University in 2004 with degrees in Supply Chain Management and Spanish. During my five years at MSU obtaining my degrees, I participated in five separate study abroad programs on three continents. I participated in three short-term summer semester programs and two separate semester long programs. I lived with two different host familes, spent one summer program in a dorm abroad, and two in hotels abroad. As a senior during the 2003/2004 academic year, I worked as a Peer Advisor in the Office of Study Abroad at Michigan State University, helping several students, including my own sister, begin the study abroad decision making process.
As this process is outlined below, please keep the following in mind. A student can study abroad no matter what college or university he or she attends or academic interests. There are options range from two week experiences to a full-year abroad, faculty-led programs to having all foreign instructors, beginning language study to language immersion, hotel or dorm housing options to home stays (host families), and just about anything inbetween. Financing issues can be easily addressed in many cases. In fact, it may be financially advantageous to study abroad (in my case, I was able to obtain several scholarships as a result). Also, study abroad can be worked into almost any academic program. For example, at Michigan State, many basic requirements can be met through specifically designed study abroad programs. Despite everything mentioned above, study abroad isn’t right for everyone, and making the decision whether or not to go can be daunting.
The first step in the process of deciding whether or not to include an international component to your college education is gathering as much information as possible. You can not have too much information. Fortunately, there are several sources. For example, at Michigan State University, the Office of Study Abroad conducts several information sessions around campus. In fact, it was an information session held during freshman orientation that sparked my early interest in studying abroad. In addition, Michigan State University holds two Study Abroad Fairs throughout the academic year. During the study abroad fair, students have an opportunity to speak with professors who coordinate and/or facilitate individual study abroad experiences, peer advisors who have studied abroad themselves, Office of Study Abroad professionals, advisors from the Office of Financial Aid, and possible former participants of most programs. In addition, it is not uncommon to have access to pictures and presentations on individual programs. It is also a wonderful opportunity to ask questions of affiliated faculty members and students.
Whether or not you’ve had an opportunity to experience an information session or study abroad fair, it is important to visit the study abroad office before you begin planning your adventure abroad – or even making the decision to study abroad in the first place. At Michigan State, the first step is to speak with a peer advisor. In preparation for your meeting, it is important to bring/contemplate the following:
– A note book and pencil/pen.
– General study abroad questions.
– Thoughts/feelings on length of program and housing options (semester-long home stay experiences aren’t for everyone).
– General academic history and interests (it is important to understand which courses you still need to complete).
– Questions regarding financial aid and scholarships (many scholarship and grant opportunities may be open to you as a result).
– An open mind! Imagination is key to a successful experience!
If you take the time to truly work with a peer or a professional in the study abroad office, you will have a good idea of which programs may be right for you. Once you have decided that you are committed to studying abroad, it is recommended that you apply for a passport immediately (please see link). The process takes 6-8 weeks and soon you will need a passport to travel anywhere outside the United States. Once you have applied for your passport, it is time to dig into the decision making process of chosing the program right for you.
At this stage, it is necessary to discuss your options with your academic advisor. He or she will help you determine exactly how study abroad will fit into your course of study. In some cases, you may have to get permission to substitute a course at a foreign institution for a course in your normal academic program. It is also wise to discuss all of your options with your parents. Be honest in discussing the realities of your choices, as well as your goals, dreams, and aspirations. You may be pleasantly surprised at how supportive they may be!
Once you have decided on a program, contacting the professor facilitating and/or teaching the study abroad program is essential. He or she can help guide you further through the application process, the course selection process, scholarship/grant application process, etc. Often, I’ve found that professors communicate frequently via e-mail to/with their program applicants/prospective participants. Professors I’ve worked with in various study abroad programs have been great in diseminating all necessary information. Many have created a series of orientation meetings where you can meet your fellow participants, as well as gather background information on your course of study and the country you’ll be visiting.
During this entire process, it is important to remember that it is truly your decision and yours alone. You may receive a lot of conflicting information, but it is your responsibility to sift through it yourself. Whether or not your college or university has an office of study abroad, the option is available to you. While it is not a decision to make lightly, deciding to study abroad will change your life and your perspective of the world. It certainly enhanced my college career – and I’m a testiment to the fact that there are some things that can best be learned outside of the classroom.