Study Abroad: DO IT. DO IT. ASAP.

by Igor Ristić

Earlier this week I shared five ways to improve the college experience and argued if you make college more interesting, you’re more likely to become engaged and stay active in your education. For those who know me personally, you might have noticed one item missing on that list; this is an item I am tremendously passionate about and that has the potential to be astonishingly life-altering. It’s been life-altering for me, it’s been life-altering for many friends, and it can be life-altering for you.

Studying abroad deserves its own post.

I’ve written about travel several times before (see this and this for two examples) because I fervently believe it’s among the best learning experiences human beings can participate in. Studying abroad has countless benefits, including learning from experience, becoming more globally minded, and changing your life direction.

Learning From Experience

Oftentimes students sit in their college classrooms, passively stare at the book, and learn absolutely and positively nothing. To the students the material is not relevant, interesting, engaging, or exciting. Study abroad changes this.

Reading about how we should be patient with those immigrants in America for whom English is a second language might convince some students. Going to a country in which you do not speak the language and being forced to interact with people in their native language, and consequently depending greatly on their patience with you, will forever change your perspective of foreigners in America.

Reading about economic disparities in the Global South might teach some students to appreciate what they have in the USA and to work towards helping the rest of the world. Going to a country in the Global South for an alternative Spring Break trip and working face-to-face with children who are poorer than anything you ever imagined will forever change the way you think about the impact of the global marketplace on the people of the world.

Reading about Islam and how it is actually a religion that highly values peace is one thing, but going to a Middle Eastern country and experiencing the serenity of a mosque and the ridiculously amazing hospitality of the people is another thing.

I could go on and on, but you get the point: study abroad will teach you more things than a textbook could ever. I say that as a professor who uses textbooks in my classes.

Become a Globally Minded Communicator

Cappadochia, Turkey (Summer 2009). I studied abroad in Turkey, this is the group on a visit to the central part of the country.

Even if you never leave the area where you were born, you will not be able to hide from the global marketplace. If you’ve lived in rural Kentucky your whole life, for instance, you might still have a cell phone, and when you call their customer service, chances are good you will be communicating with somebody in Asia. When you go out to eat, chances are good the folks making your food are immigrants. The folks who picked the ingredients for that food are also probably immigrants. When you walk around your university campus, you will be interacting with international students from all over the world. When you get that career you’ve always wanted, you will most definitely be working with people from different places around the world. The United States of America will only continue to become more and more diverse. How do you become a more globally minded communicator? Explore the globe.

Clarke, Flaherty, Wright, and McMillen (2009) conduced a study in which they compared a group of Business students who studied in the U.S. and a group who took the same coursework during a semester-abroad program in Belgium. The students who studied abroad had the opportunity to visit businesses, governmental institutions, and cultural sites in six Western European countries (p. 176).

According to the researchers, the students who studied abroad were more globally minded, saw themselves as more proficient, approachable, and open to intercultural communication, exhibited a greater openness to cultural diversity, and had greater levels of intercultural sensitivity (Clarke et al., 2009, pp. 176-177).

Changing Your Life Direction 

Studying abroad will help you to learn and will make you into a globally minded communicator. These skills will help you to stand out in the future and to get better jobs and opportunities after graduation. These are not the only benefits.

You will meet people while you study abroad that might become lifelong friends and that might change the course of your life. Oftentimes we learn the most about ourselves when we are in extreme situations, and living in a foreign country can be classified as an extreme (in a good way) situation. My career goals are a direct result of my past study abroad and other travel experiences, and I have many friends who have changed the course of their lives after studying abroad.

This experience is priceless, profoundly and unquestionably priceless. I even have friends who have moved to the countries in which they originally studied abroad and have started completely new lives; they are as happy as they have ever been. You may not know about your secret love for South Asian culture, for instance, until you take a leap and go to India for a summer.

I Want to Study Abroad, But…

Since I’ve been lucky enough to study abroad twice before and am obviously passionate about it, I’ve been in many conversations about the topic. Most college students I talk to are in favor of the idea and actually have plans to study abroad. The problem is these plans are often part of an undefined and ambiguous future.

“Oh, I’m gonna do it summer of my Junior year”, they might say.

This does not work out because while people talk about doing it, they do not follow through. I’m not going to write much more today because it’s Friday and your attention spans are short, but I’m here to tell you that all of your objections to study abroad can most likely be overcome. A few examples:

I Don’t Have the Money!

Work hard in your classes and receive good grades. Once you’ve done this, apply for study abroad scholarships with both your schools and with the specific study abroad program. Chances are good you can get a lot of support from those scholarships. Also, start funds in which you ask your closest family and friends to help you out. Furthermore, change your spending habits. Stop going to Applebee’s three nights a week and start to save; start to save a year before you plan to travel. Another option is to join volunteer projects which might pay for you to travel abroad in exchange for your service. Finally, you can take out loans. This experience is worth some debt, believe me.

I Don’t Know the Language

Most study abroad programs are designed for students who do not speak the native language, so this concern is null and void. Also, a lot of the world speaks English (United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Ghana, etc.). Furthermore, you should be learning a second language anyway, so take a few courses and then go to that country to continue your studies.

It’s Dirty, Dangerous, etc.

The United States has some very dirty and very dangerous areas. So does every other country. A legitimate study abroad program is not going to take a group of college students to a location in which they are in extraordinary danger. Trust the program and use common sense while there, and you will be both safe and clean. This quick video was made by the Kentucky Institute for International Studies, and it addresses the topic of overcoming a fear of visiting countries you might have a bad perception of (Turkey, in this case.)

If you study abroad you will gain an appreciation for the world that will forever change your perceptions. You will watch news about other countries differently, will interact with people from different cultures differently, will have a much better understanding of global political/economic issues, and will become a more rounded person.

Do this NOW

While expensive, studying abroad as a college student is still a lot cheaper than your trips will be once you’re out of school. Also, you have way more time these days than you will in a few years from now.

So do it, do it, and do it ASAP.

Contact me with any specific questions about this or if you would like to chat about it, I would love to do so, if it means potentially convincing you to partake in this amazing experience.

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