It’s a question at the forefront of the minds of incoming college students that educators hear over and over again during campus tours and orientations: “Will I be able to study abroad?” Many students enter college with the goal of participating in an international program, but the realities of academic programs, finances, and travel anxieties — plus a number of other factors — can make pursuing the experience seem daunting.
So how do you know if you can study abroad, and when? While there are a lot of things to consider, seeking guidance from your school’s global education office and taking the time to understand how the process works can help make the dream of studying abroad a manageable, realistic goal.
“If you know it’s something that you want to do, it’s never too early to start planning [for] when it might be a best fit and how to afford it,” says Katie Sensabaugh, director of Study Abroad at James Madison University.
Types of Programs
First, it’s important to understand that studying abroad isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. The exact trips available will depend, first, on what your school offers. From there, factors such as academic schedules and finances will come into play to determine which program is the best fit. To get a general understanding of the different options, most study abroad programs can be broken down by the duration of the program and where you are enrolled. Spending a full semester abroad in place of a semester at your home university may be the first thing you think about, but it’s not the only option. Universities offer options for either full-semester programs or short-term programs that typically take place while the regular semester is not in session, over winter break, spring break, or during the summer. In most cases, they will span from two to six weeks. According to Sensabaugh, the short-term programs are the most popular because students don’t need to miss a full semester or worry as much about costs.
The second factor to consider is whether you’re enrolling in a faculty-led program or directly in a university overseas. Short-term programs are typically run by a faculty member from your home university, which can provide a reassuring sense of structure and stability. For students who have never traveled out of the country on their own (or with others), the thought of enrolling in a university abroad can be daunting. In this case, a faculty-led program presents the best option since it provides a familiar, built-in support system.
If you’re someone looking for more freedom in the experience, many full-semester abroad options take on a structure that’s similar to a regular semester: You are enrolled in the university and navigate your day-to-day classes and activities on your own. Depending on the specific programs your college or university offers, this could be with a partner school; part of an exchange program, where you enroll in a foreign school and another student enrolls in your home school in your place; or by direct enrollment in a
One of the most important things to think about is how this experience will fit into your academic schedule: specifically, if you’ll get the credits you’ll need to stay on track for graduation, and whether the credits will count toward your major. This is where it’s important to talk with your adviser before you get your heart set on a certain program.
“They need to be sure that they’re going on a program where they’ll be taking courses that they can bring back credit from, to apply to their home university degree. And sometimes that’s automatic, if they’re going on a program led by the faculty of the university. In those cases, the credit is university credit, so it’s not a question,” says Theresa Johansson, director of Global Education at Virginia Tech.
“But a lot of times they’re going on someone else’s program, whether it’s another U.S. university or study abroad provider, or directly enrolling in a foreign university,” she continues. “In those cases, they have to really do some legwork to see what courses are available, bring those courses and their descriptions to their academic advisers at home, and go through a whole process to get those approved to be brought back as transfer credit.”
How to Pay for It
Of course, one of the obvious hesitancies when considering any travel-based experience is the price tag. There are a lot of variables to consider when trying to decipher the cost, and it will largely depend on the school you attend and the type of program you plan to take — but the good news is that it’s not as unattainable as you might fear.
Study abroad advisers work with students to understand their financial situations, find programs that work for them, and help them navigate the scholarships and grants that are available for studying abroad.
“I think one of the myths that exists out there is study abroad is only for wealthy students. But really, it’s for everyone. You just have to really be proactive and think ahead about ways to finance it and get the support that you need, because it’s out there,” says Sensabaugh.
Some of the primary costs that will likely come up are airfare, which both Sensabaugh and Johansson note is almost always up to the student, tuition costs, and living expenses. Depending on the program, some living expenses may be wrapped up in a trip fee, which students would pay upfront, rather than paying for lodging and food throughout their stay.
When it comes to tuition, rates depend on whether you’re enrolled through your home university or directly enrolled in the university abroad. While some programs will have you pay the same home-university tuition rates as you would any other semester, direct or third-party enrollment could mean that you pay the tuition rate of the host university, which may be more affordable, depending on the institution.
Why Study Abroad?
All of these factors might seem overwhelming, but don’t throw in the towel. Once you’re able to find a program that suits your needs, the experience will be worth it.
“I see students before they go on programs: they’re nervous, they’re scared, they’re excited when they go on the program,” says Sensabaugh. “And when they come back, they’re totally changed people. They’re more confident. They trust themselves more. They are more self-aware. They understand others. So it really is a transformational experience.”
Johansson notes a similar transformation when students return. She has seen students develop in areas such as “self-reliance; comfort with ambiguity and ability to navigate ambiguous situations; [and] problem identification and problem solving.” These developments, she says, can translate into desirable skills for employers.
“We have to kind of teach the students to articulate what it is that they can do after they come back that they couldn’t do before they left,” she says.
Johansson says once students can do that, they’ll be able to communicate more effectively with potential employers.
“[Employers] are looking for students who can work with a diverse set of colleagues, and work beyond difference and communicate across difference.”
The bottom line? Studying abroad may have a lot of moving parts, but with the right guidance, it’s something that can really pay off, personally and professionally.
This story originally ran in Northern Virginia Magazine’s March issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.