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Decision-Making Guide to Studying Abroad to Your College Career
For those of you who have made the brave decision to study abroad, have been accepted into the program of your choice, have the money to go, have your courses are set for the length of the program, you may be wondering how to make the most of your study abroad experience. Different types of programs and different interests will open themselves to a wide array of unique opportunities once you set foot on foreign soil. Wherever you decide to go, adventure is sure to follow.
Studying abroad, no matter what length of program or location, uniquely lends itself to travel opportunities. You may ask: Why would I want to travel once I’m on-site for the program? My response: Why not? For example, during my semester long experience in Ecuador, I traveled to the Galapagos for a week on the water with a group of friends from the university. I also took a weekend trip to a jungle town called Tena and went white-water rafting. In essence, no matter what study abroad experience I participated in, it was taking the time to travel while abroad that made it all worthwhile.
It isn’t as nearly as difficult as you’d think. During my semester in Caceres, Spain, I traveled nearly every weeked with my friends on a shoe-string budget. The memories you make traveling via bus, train, etc.; spending the night in hostels with a bunch of your friends; visiting historic landmarks; and discovering the local hangouts will last you a lifetime. If you take the time to meet up with your future classmates before you get on the plane, you’d
Be sure to save up as much money as you can in order that you don’t end up broke at the end of your experience. You can ensure that you have enough money to travel by applying for scholarships, planning your expenditures, selling your unused items on E-Bay, writing for Associated Content, getting local sponsorship (maybe in exchange for a presentation once you return), asking relatives for assistance (maybe an early graduation gift?), getting a part-time job (or a second part-time job, if feasible). In essence, brainstorm in order to raise funds. You would be surprised how far $500 – $1,000 of additional funds will go towards your travel budget (especially in Latin America)!
Also, don’t forget. Some incredible experiences might already be included in your program. Most, if not all, of the five study abroad programs I participated in at Michigan State University included SOME travel excursions. For example, my study abroad experience in Spain included trips to Madrid and Sevilla. The program in Quito, Ecuador included trips to Otavalo (traditional artesean markets) and a biological status in the heart of the rainforest. All were unforgetable experiences that greatly enhanced the program.
Don’t Take Your Host Family For Granted!
For those of you brave enough to spend a semester abroad with a host family, make the most of the situation. Once you feel comfortable with your host family, make it a point to take part in their celebrations, customs, day-to-day living, etc. Family parties and vacations made my experience in Ecuador truly unique – and gave me a glimpse into Ecuadorean society that I would have never had otherwise. A traditional noon-day family meal with my host family in Spain made me appreciate Spanish way of life and made me experience a different way of daily living. Living with a host family almost always leads to unexpected cultural experiences that can be savored for a lifetime. Host families are also wonderful sources of support for those missing their own families. They are also wonderful sources of ideas for unique experiences.
By All Means, Keep A Journal
This is one of my biggest regrets. Even though I kept a journal throughout all of my study abroad expriences, I truly regret that I wasn’t more detailed as well as desciplined in doing so. Write down as much of your experiences as you possibly can; find a permanent place in your backpack for your journal, a tape recorder, camera, or anything else you could use to capture your experiences. I’ve never heard anyone say that they wrote, recorded, or photographed too much. Use your time traveling to catch up on your thoughts. If you are fortunate enough to have good internet access (internet cafes are eveyrwhere, but can get expensive), keep a blog. You can later use your material to publish your observations on sites like Associated Content or enter contests held for returning students such as those held at Michigan State.
Don’t Forget the Academics
Quite simply, you are participating in study abroad to learn. You need to remember that while not all learning takes place in the classroom (otherwise, what would be the point of studying abroad?), the classroom component is valuable as well. Often, what you learn in the classroom can act as a springboard for great weekend adventures. For example, I took an art history course while in Caceres, Spain (as did most of the group). It was handsdown one of the best courses I’ve ever taken in my life. On the weekends, we would literally go visit the works of arts that we had studied during the week. There is absolutely nothing that compares to that.
Please keep in mind that instructors in foreign countries may have standards that differ substantially from those you are used to at your home university. In other words, if you notice that you’re having issues academically, don’t hesitate to speak to the instructor in order to resolve them. In my experience, it is easier to face an issue head on rather than allowing it to fester. Most professors I’ve dealt with on study abroad experiences are very accomodating and are eager to help you incorporate your experiences into your course work – and vice versa. Study abroad is all about mixing real-life cultural experience with a variety of classroom learning experiences.
Take Time For Yourself
Once you are settled into your new life in your adopted country, it may be tempting to get completely wrapped up with traveling, classes, your new friends, your host family, etc. I’ve found it necessary to take a little time for myself every once in a while. For me, that meant finding a quiet place to study alone or write, exploring internet cafes and coffee houses, and shopping. It was through studying studying abroad that I truly became comfortable with my own company (I even went out to dinner by myself once due to the fact that I was the only one who wanted to try out a particular restaurant) – and that is something that will serve me well in the future.
Keep In Touch
It is important to take time to keep in touch with family and friends back home. However, don’t be shocked if you find that they have changed as well once you return home. It is also important to remember that you are there to meet new people and have new experiences. Some people almost become too wrapped up in what is occurring at home.
Be Prepared to Participate Once You Go Home
Many might think that your study abroad experience ends once you get off the plane, home safe and sound. Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many opportunities, I plan on dedicating another article on the subject. There is just that much material to cover, but keep this in mind. My first summer experience led to my participation in four additional study abroad experiences, the perfect part-time job, participation (including a leadership role) in Alternative Spring Break, two specializations, thousands of dollars in scholarship money, etc. It is still affecting my life. Once you go, you will never be the same – and that is probably the best thing you’ll gain from your study abroad experience.
Study abroad may not be for everyone, but once the decision to go is made, it is important to make the most of your experience. Study abroad will open up a host of new opportunities in your college career, and your life. It is important to approach the study abroad experience with a sense of adventure.