Unlocking the World: The Transformative Power of and Tips For Studying Abroad in College

The college years should be a time of exploration, growth, and self-discovery. Studying abroad provides a unique opportunity to do all three, and more! While many of today’s college students consider themselves to be “global citizens” before ever stepping foot on campus, few have truly immersed themselves in a culture different from the one into which they were born for any length of time. Significant advancements in technology, including social media, has resulted in Gen Z (aka “digital natives”) being more aware of international events, world religions and politics, and the concept of global interdependence than any previous generation. And yet, most college students can benefit greatly from being fully engaged in an international experience for a portion of their undergraduate education. The benefits of studying abroad are numerous; immersing oneself in a new culture can enhance knowledge, challenge one’s perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews, and develop essential life skills. In this blog post, I highlight my thoughts about the value of studying abroad and offer some recommendations for making one’s international experience enriching, fulfilling, and successful.

Why Study Abroad in College?

Cultural Immersion: One of the most significant benefits of studying abroad, if done correctly, is the opportunity to immerse oneself in a different culture. This is something that traditional classes can not provide. I encourage students to fully engage when studying abroad- build relationships with local people, get involved in the community, and go out of their way to gain an understanding of the culture, history, and traditions. Students may experience being “in the minority” for the first time and have novel experiences around their multiple identities within a different context. By fully engaging, students are more likely to have a transformative experience. As a result, they will have a deeper understanding of the world, themselves, and how they want to move forward with their life. 

Personal Growth: Living in a foreign country pushes one out of their comfort zone. Just how far a student will be out of their comfort zone will depend on how willing they are to engage with new people, unfamiliar surroundings, and novel experiences. Students will need to learn how to navigate in a new environment (e.g., manage finances, use public transportation, understand cultural norms, etc.). They will likely need to problem-solve with less support than they may be used to and learn to overcome challenges by using new resources. The more adventurous and the higher the degree of immersion, the greater the likelihood that students will develop more independence and become more adaptable and resilient.

Global Perspective and Network: Experiencing a new country and its various systems (e.g., education, healthcare, legal, etc.) will give students a broader perspective and a higher level of cultural competence. They will develop a better understanding of global issues. Students with an immersive international experience are likely to be more flexible, comfortable working with diverse teams, and positioned to develop an international network. They will be able to uniquely contribute to a rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected world as well as leverage contacts to open doors to future opportunities and collaborations, both personally and professionally. 

Academic Enrichment: Studying abroad can give students access to different teaching styles, perspectives, and applications. Students will be exposed to different educational resources and structures. It can provide a unique opportunity for students to understand and apply their knowledge in a different cultural context, demonstrate adaptability, and consider their discipline or major through a different lens.

Tips for a Successful Study Abroad Experience

Plan Early: Start planning for studying abroad well in advance. Students should connect with their institution’s study abroad office as soon as they entertain the idea and participate in information and planning sessions.Most programs require students to apply at least six months prior to departure. Also, because students will be spending a semester/quarter or more away from campus, it is important that they understand implications academically, financially, and with regard to their co-curricular, extracurricular, and career development activities. Research programs that align with academic and personal goals. Finally, students should talk with other students who have participated in the programs they are considering to gain valuable insights and suggestions.

Academics– for each possible program students should make sure they understand exactly how much flexibility they have with courses they take during their time abroad and if courses they take can fulfill degree requirements (e.g. general education, major, electives, etc.). 

Finances– students need to understand the costs associated with each program, including tuition, living expenses, and travel (both to and from the U.S. as well as traveling during the experience). Students need to obtain a passport as well as appropriate visas, etc. Additionally, understanding exchange rates and the cost of living in the chosen destination is critical. Understand if/how financial aid will apply and seek out scholarships and part time work before going abroad  to make it more affordable.

Other considerations– it is important to understand how being away from campus may impact engagement in other aspects of the undergraduate experience like research, leadership opportunities, and career development activities. Being away from campus for a significant period of time can be disruptive, but with proper planning accommodations can often be made to maximize various opportunities.

Choose the Right Destination: Selecting the right country and city for studying abroad experience is crucial. Students need to understand if there is a minimum level of fluency necessary and incorporate the appropriate courses into their academic plan. Additionally, they should consider whether they want to study in an English speaking country, study in a country whose primary language is not English but in a program where classes are taught in English, or be in a fully immersive experience where classes will be taught in the primary language of the country. Other important considerations are knowing the cost of living, safety issues, and your personal preferences related to climate and cultural interests.

Select the Right Institution/Program- students should select a study abroad program that aligns with their major or career interests. Some students may need to fulfill specific requirements while studying abroad, while others may “free” up their schedule to take only electives. Students should determine how many requirements will need to be completed while studying abroad and discuss the pros/cons of taking courses in their major while abroad with an advisor. Then check on the availability of courses related to those requirements and understand the process for enrollment for students who are studying abroad. Finally, students need to make sure they understand and complete any necessary course approval processes in advance of going abroad if at all possible. Stay in touch with an advisor while abroad should changes to your course schedule need to be made-students are responsible for their academic progress.

Health and Safety– prioritize health and safety by researching the local healthcare system, obtaining necessary vaccinations, and securing travel insurance. Students should research support for any specific healthcare needs and understand how health insurance will work. Learn about the local customs, etiquette and laws (e.g., being gay in certain countries is illegal and in some Arab countries women are expected to wear a head covering at all times). Respect and try to integrate with the local community. This will not only enhance your safety and help you avoid any cultural misunderstandings or legal troubles, but also enrich your experience and enhance your personal growth. Attending pre-departure/orientation programs through the student’s home institution, where many of these issues are discussed, is crucial.

Cultural Immersion– be open to new experiences and embrace cultural differences. Make an effort to engage with the local culture. Attend festivals, try new foods, and learn the language. The more a student immerses themselves, the richer and more transformative their experience will be. Use the destination as a launching point for exploring nearby destinations. Travel during weekends or breaks to maximize exposure to different cultures.

Stay Connected– while students immerse themselves in a new culture and build meaningful relationships with their fellow students and “locals”, they should not forget to stay in touch with friends and family back home. They provide an important support system and encouragement for students’ adventures. Technology has made it easier than ever for students to stay connected and share their experiences with loved ones.

Reflect and Write About the Experience– while I encourage students to be present and engage fully in one’s experience in “real time”, it is also meaningful for students to capture their experiences through photos and reflections (via a journal or a blog). Doing so can help students think about and document what surprises, inspires, and touches them throughout their experience. Additionally, reflections allow students to share their adventures with others and often enhance the depth of their growth and personal transformation.

Students who carefully plan and fully engage in immersive study abroad experiences have an unparalleled opportunity for a transformative adventure. Studying abroad can lead to personal growth, new and more diverse perspectives, and a global network; which together can impact one’s future and enrich one’s life for years to come.

Beth A. Howland is founder of College Navigators, LLC and coaches college students to optimize their undergraduate experiences in support of their educational, personal, and career goals. She worked for close to 25 years in a variety of direct service and leadership positions in student support services at Cornell University, Duke University, Ithaca College, Tulane University, and UNC-Chapel Hill. Check out Beth’s previous posts about college student success.

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