Studying Abroad 101

Katrina Alonso, Copy Editor

You’re at the airport, your bags in tow, and your parents are far behind you. If you blink, you can almost recall the image of them waving goodbye as they dropped you off at the check-in counter. You had your bags weighed and checked them in to be loaded onto the plane, then received your boarding pass before you headed to security to be patted down by the TSA. Today, you will board a flight to a brand new country where you’re on your own. The purpose of your visit: to learn the nuances of your field through a new lens in partnership with your university and to learn firsthand the culture of another country. As you stand in line, you reflect upon the process that brought you here.

Studying abroad is an option many consider, especially for their sophomore or junior years in college. Sometimes, through one-of-a-kind opportunities like a class trip abroad or through organizations like People to People, even high school students can participate in a study abroad program. Most universities offer their students the opportunity to continue their education for credit in partner schools abroad, and students often take this opportunity to broaden their horizons within the comfort and safety of a familiar school program. Though it can be a rewarding experience, it also entails a long process before you can actually board that plane to Italy, Greece or Shanghai.

Choosing the ideal study abroad program carefully is the first step on the road to a successful educational and travel experience. Universities and organizations alike offer different courses and trip durations, so research your options and choose which is best for you. Would you prefer to stay for a week or two? A semester? A whole school year, perhaps? Learning about the different opportunities afforded to you will definitely help in making your decision. For college students, looking into which partner schools abroad offer the courses for your major will be a big factor in deciding where to go. In addition to that, finding out what your housing situation will be like should be one of the more important things on your list of things to do for the program. Less-than-ideal dorms on a campus 45 minutes away from home are completely different animals from those on a campus 8 hours away by plane, so make sure you’ll be housed in a decent dorm in an acceptable part of town.

Because you’re paying for plane tickets, new housing, and the cost of the actual courses, studying abroad can be a pricey endeavor. However, you do have options in terms of finances. You could apply for financial aid through the government or even through your school, making you eligible for loans or even scholarships. Speaking of which, scholarships can be won through your school as well as through outside organizations. A visit with your guidance counselor could help you find the right scholarships to apply for in your attempts to fund your program. In the worst case, you can make a last-ditch effort by starting an account on a fundraising site like GoFundMe or CrowdRaise and using social media to promote your cause. A short paragraph or two explaining why you need the money and what the program means to you could persuade family and friends to donate towards your study abroad.

Once the financial details have been sorted out, you’re going to need to go through the motions of getting your traveling documents together. First, make sure you have a valid passport with an expiration date of at least 6 months after your intended return. It seems like a long time but if, for whatever reason, you find yourself unable to return on time, you have a lot of leeway with which to amend your situation. If you have an American passport, certain countries may not require you to acquire a Visa. However, variables such as the length of your stay and even the political situation of the country you plan to enter can affect your need for a Visa. As such, checking whether you’d need one or not would be the best course for you to take.

The fun part comes after all the important stuff has been dealt with, but it still requires a bit of research. First of all, reading up on the country you’re visiting will serve you well, especially since learning about the culture could save you from some serious social mishaps. In addition to that, learning a few key phrases in the native language of the region will be a huge help, even if you’re only staying for a few days. The locals will appreciate you more for trying and it’s pretty cool to be able to say you successfully navigated the streets of Paris by asking for directions in French!

Packing for a trip (especially a long one) can certainly be a daunting task, but a few key guidelines are all you need for a successful journey. Looking up your airline’s guidelines regarding luggage weight and size will be a factor in deciding what to bring with you because of the limited space you’ll be using. When deciding on which clothes to bring, looking into the weather reports from the country you’ll be visiting will give you a glimpse of what the weather is usually like there, so pack accordingly. Don’t forget to bring your laptop and camera for sharing the amazing pictures you’ll be taking as well. Just before you leave, it would be advisable for you to call your bank to inform them you’ll be traveling so you can use a bank card when buying abroad, but do have some converted cash on hand for emergencies. Depending on how long you intend to stay, you should either consult your cell phone carrier for international plans to use abroad or purchase a pay-as-you-go phone and limit your Internet usage to the WiFi in your hotel room. Either of these options would keep you from incurring steep international charges on your phone bill.

Though this article may seem long, it is far from exhaustive, as many of your teachers can tell you. Some of Morris Hills’ finest have made it through their own experiences studying abroad all on their own. For example, Spanish teacher Ms. Wagner, who studied abroad in Costa Rica during the fall semester of her junior year in college, was excited to share her stories. When she went about applying for the program, she said her college supervisor “played an integral part with the application process.” Her supervisor helped her come up with a list of courses she could take abroad that would fulfill requirements for her degree and even helped her decide on when the best time to study abroad would be.

She chose Costa Rica for a whole host of reasons, which included the fact that they have the best educational system in Central America, the short travel time that would cut down costs, and the beautiful geographical features that were open for exploration through excursion trips. Her experience also made an astounding impact on her life. Before she left for Costa Rica, Ms. Wagner was very shy and was not comfortable speaking to anyone she hadn’t known well, let alone conversing in Spanish. Studying in a Spanish-speaking country forced her to communicate with and express herself to new people every day in a different language. She became more confident in her ability to interact with others and to speak Spanish fluently and she was more independent now that she had been forced to rely on herself and explore things on her own. This is why she says she’d definitely recommend studying abroad, especially for the seniors heading to college who are looking for new, life-changing experiences.

Other opportunities for studying abroad are also available for those not heading to college just yet through organizations like People to People. Morris Hills senior Nicole Caulfield took advantage of her nomination for this program as a Sports Ambassador. She took a 12 day trip to Germany and Austria to compete in the World Festival of Soccer and to participate in leadership and community service activities. Though she was only 13 years old at the time, she says this trip taught her a lot about being independent. This year, when she applied to colleges, she said the fact that she’d studied abroad really set her apart from other applicants and put her in a better place in terms of candidate selection. Like Ms. Wagner, Nicole had problems with the language barrier while she was in Germany, but she got by well enough in English.

Everyone who shares their stories about studying abroad talks about how it teaches you to be independent and to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things. The process, however daunting and labor-intensive it may seem, has proven to be worth it to everyone who’s taken the plunge and gone through with it because they consider the experience to be one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. Now that you’ve seen how amazing it can be to study abroad and you have the information you need, take that leap and apply! You never know where you could end up.