Dear College Juniors (and anyone) thinking about studying abroad as an undergrad,
I think you are a bunch of attractive geniuses and I am about to tell you why.
Recently, I have found myself engaged in many a conversation with rising college juniors who are planning to study abroad, and who have looked to me, older and wiser as I am, for advice – advice I would like to share with the Internet at large. People frequently ask me about my experiences studying and living abroad, I think, because I have shared them so publicly and I evidently have a lot to say. My semester abroad turned out to be an incredibly formative experience for me both as a student of French and as an individual, and it has informed (continues to inform) my postgraduate trajectory. In fact, if I hadn’t studied abroad, I would probably have spent the past year languishing in my childhood bedroom and would still have no idea what I want to do with my life.
Naturally, I have become a huge advocate of study abroad because of the profound effects it can have on your personal and intellectual development. Yes, of course, it’s a great addition to your résumé, and it has a positive effect on postgraduate job placement, but that isn’t why you should go abroad. In fact, you shouldn’t take anyone’s word (not even mine!) as your reason to study abroad.
Let me be clear: I don’t think you should ever ask yourself, “Should I study abroad?” Of course you should! You may, at some point, have to ask yourself, “Can I study abroad?” Certain majors can make it very difficult to study abroad (notably the sciences and psychology), so some of you will need to plan ahead. Although some of you may be reluctant to miss out on campus life and time with your friends, don’t deprive yourself of this opportunity; college is the best and easiest (and, often, most financially feasible) time to spend an extended period of time abroad.
So, now, you’ve decided to study abroad, you clever, clever person. Now you ask, “Why should I go abroad? What do I want to gain?” Perhaps you already have a country (or at least a continent) in mind, but setting a goal for yourself will help you choose the perfect program. Going to France with a program that teaches all its classes in English won’t do you any good if you want to improve your French. Try going through the following laundry list to figure out your study abroad priorities.
When I go abroad, I want…
- to travel.
- to learn a new language.
- to become fluent in a language I already speak.
- full cultural and linguistic immersion.
- to engage in service or social justice work of some kind.
- the opportunity to do an internship for credit.
- a home-stay with a host family.
- to live in my own apartment or in a dorm at a foreign university.
- to learn about foreign policy and/or government.
- to take classes at a university.
- to take classes in English in a non-anglophone country.
- a program that is more experience-based than class-based.
- to meet students from all over the world.
- to meet and travel with other [insert your nationality here]s.
- to fulfill requirements for my major/graduation.
- to live in a big, iconic city.
- to experience life in a smaller city or town.
- to feel uncomfortable (in the sense of being pushed beyond your comfort zone… except I think “comfort zone” is a cliché that doesn’t mean anything).
As you narrow your priorities, you will find that choosing a program will become easier. No detail is too large or too small, and you may need to do some initial research before you figure out exactly what appeals to you, but I think it’s important to enter your study abroad experience with a sense of purpose. Perhaps that purpose will change over the course of your study abroad experience, but it will remain a source of motivation and stability.
In my next letter, I’ll break down my own study abroad experience to the essential elements that made it amazing as a guide for you to translate different programs’ features into the actual experiences they will create for you. I’ll also continue to post study abroad advice throughout the year, and I would love your guidance: what do you want to know?
Until next time, I think you are all beautiful.