Is Study Abroad Really for Me?
If you’re looking for help deciding whether or not to study abroad—especially online—well…good luck. A quick Google search for “why study abroad,” will turn up a litany of results ranging from "Every Student Should Study Abroad” to “5 Reasons College Students Should Not Study Abroad”—and a bunch of more nuanced takes found everywhere in between.
So perhaps it would be best to leave my own opinion out of the mix—when too many people are talking at once, no one can understand anything at all! But that said, I think it’s a risk that I’m willing to take. After all, I studied abroad twice during my university career, I parlayed the skills I gained into my first “real” job back home, and I even met my fiancée while on my second study abroad experience (she was a foreign exchange student too!). I think I’ve got some useful perspective that may help you when trying to make your decision.
First of all, let me say unequivocally that study abroad is not necessarily for everyone. It sounds harsh, I know, but it’s the truth. And sadly, the primary reason for this is one outside the control of most students—I’m talking, of course, about the almighty dollar (or euro, pound, peso, etc.).
For U.S.-based students, especially nowadays, tuition alongside cost of living expenses during the college years can be insanely expensive. If you’ve got some great scholarships or if you’re lucky enough to have a strong family financial support system, then good for you—I strongly encourage you to study abroad! But if money is an issue for you—specifically if you’ve got serious student loans or other sources of debt—I recommend you take a good, hard look and fully analyze your situation before making your decision.
Now I want to be clear—I’m absolutely not saying that a student burdened by loans/debt should never study abroad. Rather, I’m just saying that you need to take a much closer look at your situation than other students have to. There are three main considerations:
1. Does your school offer study abroad programs as part of your regular tuition package?
If your school is going to force you to pay study abroad program fees on top of your regular tuition, I would very strongly advise against participating. If this is the case, it makes just as much financial sense to travel independently for some time after graduating, providing you more freedom to choose where you’re headed and how to spend your time. The one exception to this rule is if your school also offers generous scholarship opportunities for study abroad programs, in which case they’re worth investigating at the very least.
2. Does your school offer study abroad opportunities to places with a lower cost of living?
This one is less often considered, but perhaps even more important than the question of tuition. If you’re going to be living in another country for three or four months or more, the nature of the local economy is going to affect your finances very seriously! Especially as a study abroad student, you’re going to want to take full advantage of what your new “home” has to offer—and that means going out, taking weekend trips, etc. It’s a lousy feeling having to sit around at home while classmates and friends hop on a train to the countryside for the weekend.
If you’re tight on cash, the unfortunate reality is that many perennially popular study abroad spots are out of the question for you—London, Paris, or Sydney? No way.
But the good news is that more and more these days, schools are offering study abroad programs to parts of the world with lower costs of living than the United States. Take it from me—I studied abroad once in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala and once in San José, Costa Rica. Though the former was much less expensive than the latter, overall both cities were cheaper than where I lived back home. If you plan intelligently and stay for enough time, you can actually save quite a pretty penny while studying abroad, even after buying your plane tickets!
3. Is study abroad going to push back your graduation date?
As I’m sure you’re well aware, a single extra semester of college can tack on an additional several thousand dollars of debt depending on your institution. If study abroad is going to cause you to fall behind on your required courses, will you be able to make this up by just taking an extra class for a semester or two? If not, you might end up having to tack on an extra semester. Consider this additional financial burden if it’s going to be a necessity for you to get out studying abroad.
Once you’ve taken all of these considerations into account, you should have a much better idea if study abroad will be a good option for you based on your financial situation.
Now for the good news—if one’s financially set for study abroad, I would recommend the experience for almost every student. Here are some common concerns about studying abroad, and what I have to say about them:
1. I’m too close with my friends/family to study abroad. I’ll be too homesick to enjoy it.
I’d venture to say that for at least 90% of students who feel this way, it simply isn’t true. First of all, study abroad throws you into an environment with a diverse group of other students in the exact same situation as you. There’s hardly an environment more conducive to developing deep friendships very quickly, and though you certainly won’t forget about your connections back home, you also won’t be losing sleep over them.
Additionally, thanks to the technology in today’s world, you really won’t lose touch with anybody who you truly want to communicate with. And while I certainly advocate against spending all your time studying abroad holed up on Skype sessions with friends and family back home, it’s admittedly a nice tool to have at your disposal. Use it sparingly!
2. Study abroad education isn’t as challenging/it won’t help me find a job after college.
Here’s a newsflash for you—unless you’re studying one of a select few very hard sciences, having passed any one specific class isn’t going to open up the door to a job for you. Rather, most employers are looking for employees with a specific set of soft skills—the sort of skills you’ll develop in spades during a study abroad experience.
Additionally, though it’s true that study abroad classes aren’t generally as intensive as classes back at your home university, that doesn’t mean that the environment is any less challenging—in fact, it’s often more difficult. Especially if you’re managing day-to-day life in a second language, simple experiences like putting minutes on your cell phone or trying to navigate across town can prove to be real challenges. They’re also great opportunities for learning outside of the classroom—something that some college students tend to forget is a possibility.
3. I’m going to miss out on important stuff back home.
No… you’re probably not. What kind of “important stuff” are you thinking about? I hate to be dark, but unless someone you love is gravely ill and potentially won’t be around much longer, you won’t be missing anything seriously important. College parties, scholastic activities, romantic trysts? They’ll all pale in comparison to the potentially life-changing moments you have studying abroad—I pretty much guarantee it.
So… though I probably haven’t opened your eyes so wide that a decision on your study abroad future has already been made, I do hope my perspective has helped you in some way.
Though I would swear by pretty much everything I’ve said here, the reality is that you’re an individual person with your own wants and needs. At the end of the day, only you know what’s right for you—but when it comes to study abroad, now you know where I stand!
By Jim Dobrowolski
Jim Dobrowolski is an American freelance writer and translator currently based out of Aguascalientes, Mexico. In his free time he enjoys hiking, playing basketball, and sampling the many beers this world has to offer. He is the founder of the travel site crosscontinentcruising.com and his personal website can be found at jimdobrowolski.com.