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Student Writing Contest Finalist

Why Complete Your Degree Abroad?

Save Your Money for More Adventures

Article and photos by Sarah Crocco

Erasmus friends in the old town of Lublin, Poland
Erasmus friends in the old town of Lublin, Poland.

4,761 miles, oh my!

Dlaczego Polska?” is a daily conversation starter when I step out of my Lublin, Poland apartment.  Though “Why Poland?” is an understandable question from the puzzled locals. It takes such a long time to explain the details of my wandering, existential soul that I usually respond with a “dlaczego nie!” or, “why not!” Truthfully, this “why not” mentality has provided me the liberty to jump at countless opportunities and live to tell the tale.

Perhaps it would not have perplexed my neighbors so much if I wasn’t an American citizen enrolled full-time in a 3-year philosophy program in a Polish University. I had not seen my University or even visited Poland before paying tuition of 3,000 euro, packed my 48-Pound bag and traveled 4,761 miles (7,662 km) to a place I would call home for the next three years. Some people thought I was brave, with others thought me crazy. Looking back, I think I was just a frugal student looking for an opportunity to see the world, get an education, and graduate with zero debt.

My international travels and studies did not start in such an intense manner. I had previously gone on family holidays to 3 different continents. I had already felt the pain known to many travelers of leaving one loved one to visit another loved one thousands of miles away. I had also experienced astonishing changes in my understanding of the world. The world was my oyster, and I realized there was nothing to fear. However, though helpful, those experiences weren’t necessary to form a beautiful life in Lublin. At my new school in a new city there was a quite an assortment of fellow students. Some had seen the University before enrolling. One friend from South Korea had never traveled before he enrolled and still thrived. We were all largely new to Poland and together managed to create a beautiful communal home. The universal expat family is one beautiful element that often develops out of long-term travel.

Life Abroad

Opportunities abroad are endless.

At my University I spent three enriching years discussing philosophical issues with Professors and students from all walks of life. In the end, I graduated with honors and a dissertation concerning technology and human rights. I flourished with European friends from all over and fell in love with the European lifestyle, fashion, and food culture. I found myself ordering espressos, dressing better, and fully enjoying my meal as opposed to my times studying in the U.S. when I was running to classes pushing down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.

During my studies I was also able to participate in an Erasmus semester. For those unfamiliar with Erasmus, it is a scholarship, popular in Europe, that allows students to study abroad for a semester or year. Most universities in Europe have funded study abroad programs so I highly recommend a visit to the foreign student's office while studying. My friends found another program, the MOST program, which funded her semester to another Polish university. The Erasmus scholarship covered tuition and most living expenses. I was fortunate to be able to study in Malta, a sunny island in the Mediterranean. The friends made there are still dear to my heart, and European reunions have proven to be wonderful.

Malta Erasmus reunion in Poland
Malta Erasmus reunion in Poland for World Youth Day, 2016.

Facebook has been a great tool, as often I discover that friends are traveling to various destinations where I also happen to be at the same time! I also found that FaceTime and Whatsapp have been lifesavers for keeping in touch. When you say "yes" to traveling, you’ll find yourself saying "yes" to the craziest adventures. For example, one time I found a flight from Warsaw to London for £20 ($26), and road tripped with a friend from Stansted Airport straight back to Poland. This turned into an interesting immigration officer interrogation:

Immigration Officer: Where are you flying from?

Me: Warsaw, Poland

IO: How long are you entering the UK for?

Me: About 3 hours, depending on traffic to the ferry at Dover.

IO: Why are you leaving the UK after just arriving?

Me: To drive back to Poland.

IO: So you flew from Poland only to drive back to Poland?

Me:…Why not?

“Why not,” a favorite term among my expat friends, has become one of the first terms I learn in other languages; dlaczego nie (Polish), por qué no (Spanish) and pourquoi pas (French). Whichever language you love, hold this term close to your heart. There have been countless opportunities taken using the term as a basis. Why not book that flight to Portugal? Why not take a bus to Ukraine in the midst of political unrest?  Such moments have allowed me to receive 46 and counting passport stamps before my 23rd birthday. When you live in Europe, where plane and bus tickets are often dirt cheap, you’ll find short excursions will happen spontaneously throughout your whole stay.

Immersion in a foreign culture may at first seem daunting, but fear not. Facebook groups are very useful in finding events to attend to meet individuals. Social events, may, in turn become invitations for dinner parties, hiking excursions, and pub nights, etc. My university in Malta rented a section of Mdina Old City and we had a zombie apocalypse hunt. It was as tremendous as it sounds. I also never let the language barrier stop me from communicating with others.  It’s very easy for you to find yourself in a party of 10+ different nationalities. My Polish roommates found a great form of communication; charades and homemade pierogi. As an American I’ve also had a great opportunity to share my culture with others. I remember hosting an International Dinner Party where the rule was that everyone had to bring a dish from their own country. It took me ages to work out an “American National Dish,” as I realized the origin of hot dogs and hamburgers was in Germany. I managed to make a lovely pasta salad that failed the test by my Italian friends, but overall it was a fantastic success gathering so many friends from other nationalities at one table.

Unavoidable Challenges

Of course, the great benefits of studying abroad come at a price such as time zones, difficulty adjusting to the local foods, etc. One of the first challenges was that there were hardly any dryers. When I did encounter a dryer, it was inadequate. It was hard to become accustomed to the annoyance of hang-drying clothes, however now I’ve adapted. Additionally, I feel great about my contribution to our environment in so doing. If I move back to the U.S., I will continue hanging my clothes. Another behavior that bothered some of my female colleagues was that in Poland men always open doors for women, and there is a stigma to being a feminist. While I perfectly enjoyed having doors opened for me — though I’ll admit I opened doors for men and women alike — I did my best to represent stand for equality. The final difficulty that bears mentioning was dealing with foreign hospitals. There was one memorable trip to the ER after some dodgy wires electrocuted me. It began on a scary note. I found myself at one point left alone in the ER room with my family across the world. I also had a doctor whose English was sprinkled with clichés from American medical shows. All was well, however, and the standards of the hospital were superb. This story ended happily, as it sparked the relationship with a British expat friend, now husband, who came to my rescue and spent the night in the ER with me. Having an expat family is the best!

Some Reasons to Complete Your Degree Abroad

There were several reasons for anyone to consider completing their degree abroad. These include:

  • Money. My program cost 3,000 euro ($3,300) per year and included health insurance and accommodation. One year, there was an American exchange student. She was paying $15,000 in addition to her already high American university fees to attend classes at a university that only cost $1,680.50 per semester. Do yourself a favor, get an education and go around the world a few times with the savings accrued.
  • Learning a language. Get past mere greetings and go for total fluency!
  • More than a semester abroad. A couple of years in a foreign country impresses any employer!
  • U.S. Elections. Need I say more?
  • Kill two birds with one stone: travel while you are young and still hold a student card for discounts!

The decision to pursue a degree elsewhere is personal, and there are countless other reasons why one would want to do so, so don’t let the doubters hold you back!

Where to Start?

There are countless online resources for finding a suitable university. My favorite is BachelorsPortal. You can search programs by filtering on countries, cost, degrees, etc. They also include graduate programs for those interested.

I recommend sending an email to the foreign student office of your home university and explaining your situation for the best advice. I also recommend asking for a suggested list of items to pack. For example, I wish I had known my student accommodation already included bedding, instead of filling half of my suitcase with blankets when the space could have been used for more useful things — like tasty American treats to ease homesickness. If the university you choose has a Facebook page, however, that is often your best bet to get inside information since other students like you can be most helpful.

After acceptance to your chosen university, it will most likely be necessary to obtain a student visa. I went to the Polish Consulate in Chicago, and it turned out to be a straightforward process. I was also able to work legally on the visa I received, which ensured that I could keep my bank account replenished while abroad. And that leads to my next topic.

How Can I Earn Money?

If you’re going to be living somewhere for a few years, you’ll need some cash. While some of my friends worked for a year and were easily able to afford the low costs of living in Poland, I found a rewarding job that allowed for a completely different office experience from home. I was a native English speaker with a teaching certificate and teaching experience (although both of those are unnecessary for most English schools in Poland). My employer also sponsored my temporary residence permit, rendering unnecessary the requirement to apply for student visas every year.

If you are hoping to work while studying, even for a little pocket money, there are a couple of websites I can recommend. The first is The International TEFL Academy. It's a great resource for viewing different country profiles. The website also offers an online TEFL certification course. Though not the cheapest ESL course, I was pleased with it as well as the amount of help I received from their customer support when searching for jobs. They have great promotions so wait for one of those before enrolling. Some other useful ESL websites are:

  • The Internet TESL Journal. Conversational questions — my students LOVE this website!
  • Breaking News English. Recent as well as timeless news stories at several levels of difficulty. It makes lesson planning a breeze!
  • Dave's ESL Cafe. An international job board that also provides games and resources for classes.

Perhaps English teaching just isn’t for you. Another website is Job Rank. There you can find top job boards in whichever country you select. Obviously, every country has its own laws and regulations regarding work.

A Final Note

Going abroad more than exceeded my original goals. I met and married my soulmate, created a home surrounded by dear friends whom I now count as family, and have found myself in an extraordinary situation to further my career through my experience as a student. I have traveled home for a few holidays. However, I have discovered that now, serendipitously, home is wherever I am.  

Graduation day!
Graduation day!

Britnae Purdy in Switzerland Sarah Crocco was born and raised in the tiny Midwest town of Alden, IL, USA. Her education consists of an Associates in Science, TEFL teaching certificate and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. She is keenly interested in human rights, yoga and raising Alpine goats. 

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