Study Abroad Advising 101
Setting Up a Successful Timeline
When some people hear the term “study abroad,” they often imagine that the process goes as follows: take a plane, enroll in a few classes, and then take that the same plane back at its conclusion. In fact, most students associate studying abroad with a lighter course load, the opportunity to travel, and overall, just having a good time. What few seem to realize is that study abroad involves a long and complex planning process.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the key to ensuring that the entire study abroad experience is successful is planning. While some schools may allow the occasional overachiever to go abroad during their senior year with only a short period for preparation, this is actually a rare scenario. Having studied, worked, interned and volunteered abroad in various countries, my own experience testifies that planning ahead pays off in the long run.
In our increasingly global society, we should all by now be aware of the importance of cross-cultural communication. Studying abroad is the ideal, if not essential, opportunity to immerse oneself a foreign culture. The ensuing learning process is more than a mere resume-booster; if one studies abroad “successfully”—and by that I mean truly coming to know the local way of life along with its language—the experience can be life-changing. It may even result in a never-ending desire to go abroad again, and again, and again.
The Advising Process
If you have never left the country, the idea of spending several months away from home, friends and family, may seem daunting at first. But no need to worry; as a student, there are countless resources available to aid you in the entire process. The first of these should be the Study Abroad Office at your home university, and specifically, a Study Abroad Advisor.
The first step here is simple: make an appointment. Ideally, your first meeting should take place in your freshman year, since studying abroad requires ample preparation and planning. If you are a sophomore or even junior reading this, however, no need to turn away: it is not too late to initiate a meeting, but be aware that your options could possibly be more limited.
Regardless of your current year in college, the following goes for all: research and come prepared. Even though your first meeting with the Study Abroad Advisor will be informal and general, it never hurts to have given the whole idea some thought.
To get you started, here are some questions you should ask yourself:
- Do I even want to go abroad?
Always the essential question. It may sound superfluous, but no matter whether the answer be “Yes,” “No,” “Maybe,” or “I don’t know,” it is worth paying your study abroad office a visit. The advisors there will be able to provide you with useful information no matter what your first inclination may be. And who knows, they may even be able to steer an initial “No” towards an enthusiastic “Yes.”
Establishing a clear set of objectives is essential. These can range anything from getting to know a foreign way of life to learning a new language to immersing oneself more fully in a culture that is part of one’s familial heritage. Keep in mind that goals can change over time so be sure to reflect on them occasionally, at least once while abroad and once when you have returned. It may even help to write them down.
- Where? Do I need to speak a foreign language?
The language component is in most cases a key to going abroad. Most study abroad programs will require a minimum number of semesters that a student has already taken the language in order to study in the local system. Planning ahead is therefore crucial. For those wishing to study in English, take a look at programs in the U.K., Australia, and countries such as in Scandinavia, where English is often the teaching language.
The experience abroad can range anywhere from a 2-week travel course to a summer, a semester, or even an entire academic year. What works best for you will depend on your goals and the availability of programs accepted at your particular school. For an in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of short versus long-term study abroad, see my related piece on the issue.
Once you have given the above questions some thought, you can discuss them with your advisor as well. In addition, he or she will be able to provide you more concrete information on such issues as:
- Courses and Credits: The idea may be to go abroad, but what you study needs to work within your degree program as well. So make sure you are informed about which classes will be available while abroad and whether you will receive credit.
- Application Process and Pre-Requisites: These will vary from school to school and program to program. Check whether you will need recommendations from professors, such as language teachers. Most schools also have a minimum GPA you need to maintain in order to go abroad. Language requirements also need to be met for programs in foreign countries.
- Financial Aid / Cost of Living: Check whether your scholarships or grants will also apply while you are abroad, and if so, how the money will be transferred to you. Additional scholarships may be available specifically for study abroad. Finally, when choosing your location, keep in mind that the cost of living is much higher in London than in Costa Rica, for example.
- Past Students and Evaluations. Getting a former student to give you advice on his or her study abroad experience can be extremely useful. Ask your advisor for email addresses. Some schools will even have a mentoring program set up for which you can simply sign up.
You can even take the following sheet directly to the first meeting:
My Study Abroad Experience
Initial Questions and Answers
I would like to go abroad in:
Combination of the above
- Entire academic year
I would like to go to:
- Latin America
- Former Soviet Block
- Middle East
- Pacific Islands
My goals for study abroad are:
- learning / improving a language
- immersion in a foreign culture
- volunteer work
|I speak / would like to learn the following language:
|I need to fulfill the following academic credits:
Previous experience abroad:
- I have been abroad before
- When, where, for how long, doing what
- I have been not been abroad before
My doubts and fears about study abroad:
For example, culture shock, finding friends, maintaining contact back home, housing, etc.
My next steps:
For example, researching different programs, contacting former participants, attending a study abroad fair, etc.
After the First Meeting
Once you have answered the initial key questions, take a moment to reflect. Do some additional research; you may find out that the rainy season in Peru, for example, is in the fall and therefore decide to move your study abroad to the spring. Though weather should not ultimately be the deciding factor, there are countless others to consider.
For example, most schools offer a variety of study abroad programs. For those who are more adventurous, independent, and fluent in the language spoken by natives, it may even be possible to enroll directly in the local institution. A program at the Sorbonne is sure to be cheaper than enrolling in it via an American university. Whether or not you will receive the same amount of credit (if any) is an important question to discuss with your advisor. A decision such as this one also depends on how much of an (American) support network you seek while abroad; some students have no problem in a foreign environment, others prefer to have a culturally similar base with whom to connect. Think honestly about what kind of person you are and make your choice accordingly.
With regards to your advisor, it may take some emailing back and forth, along with some additional meetings, to set up a clear strategy. Social media can also be useful in the research process, but do not base your opinion only on where your Facebook friends are going. Ultimately, from your advisor to social media, comprehensive research should enable you to present a well-justified argument not only to your parents, professors, friends, and yourself.
Once you have decided on a select number of programs, apply. And when you do, be realistic about your goals—i.e. do not apply to a program in France that requires near-native fluency when you have not even passed first semester French. Finally, be sure to pay attention to deadlines!
Now it is time to start with a bunch of organizational details. Visa, plane ticket, health insurance, preparation courses: all these are things that need to be taken care of before going. Again, do not worry, your advisor will have experience guiding students through the process, but do come prepared to do a bit of work yourself. Check again also with your Financial Aid Office and try to estimate a budget that you will need abroad. Also, figure out whether additional activities, such as internships, need to be arranged beforehand or in-country.
Most students think that the relationship with the advisor ends when they are abroad. However, it can be useful to keep in touch. He or she will be able to answer questions not only about logistical matters, such as credits or insurance. Moreover, however, your advisor can let you know about interesting opportunities, such as photo contests, which could offer you some very appreciated pocket money for that trip to the south of Spain. Finally, if you are doing well, let your advisor know about that, too. A little thank you can go a long way.
Returning to reality at your home institution can involve quite a reverse culture shock. Feel free to meet with your advisor to discuss how you are adapting. Take some time to reflect upon your overall experience. What did you like? What did you not like? What would you repeat? If so, your advisor can most likely provide some useful information on how you can go abroad again, whether with another study abroad or a post-graduate program overseas. Finally, don not let your learning experience become buried; share it with fellow students. Transitions Abroad will even allow you to earn cash with a well-written Participant Report. Become a mentor and inspire others to study abroad as well!
For More Info
www.studyabroad.com: Database listing a wide variety of Study Abroad programs worldwide.
Transitions Abroad Participant Reports: Search here to find out about another student’s opinion about a particular program in question.
CIEE: Offers study abroad programs all over the globe. Also offers work, teach and internship options.
IEEPassport: Another search engine useful for finding a program abroad.