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Study abroad benefits

By Scott Sager


Taking my daughter to college, one semester was different from all the others. Instead of lugging suitcases and boxes into a dorm room, I dropped her off at an airport so she could fly across the ocean for a semester abroad.

Leaving her there, even with other students going on the same program, felt both exciting and nerve-wracking. I was full of questions like, how would she find her way around a foreign country, would she make friends with students whose language she hadn’t mastered, would she be able to stay in contact with home?

My fears were wholly unfounded. Studying abroad is a common part of the college experience today. The Institute of International Education reports that nearly one in ten undergrads will study abroad during their degree program and nearly every school provides access to programs, planning advice and financial assistance to make it possible for students to take part in overseas education.

My friend Debbie encouraged her son, a student at the University of Maine, to get out of the country, and she says, “I’d encourage any kid to study abroad. You’ll do things you can’t do any other way and it can be a life-changing experience.”

Jim has two daughters; one is a recent Dartmouth grad who studied in France and New Zealand and the other is a junior at Wesleyan University who spent a semester in Brazil. He echoes Debbie's thought. The college years can be rich and multi-faceted, but they can also be like living in a bubble. “Campus life is always a little artificial. If you get to go abroad, you get immersed in the world,” he says.

I’d encourage any kid to study abroad. You’ll do things you can’t do any other way and it can be a life-changing experience.

Parents may wonder how these programs work and what they cost, especially the impact on financial aid. Debbie advises, “You really have to think about it ahead of time. The sooner you start planning the easier.” Institutions, though, continue to eliminate barriers for students. Many schools run their own programs in other countries, making the experience, administratively, like attending your home campus. Credits automatically show up on transcripts and tuition and fees, including financial aid, remain the same during your student’s time abroad. Other exchange programs work the same way, allowing students to enroll in a foreign university but pay tuition and fees, receiving the same financial aid, at their home institution.

The perfect program for your student might not be one of their school’s options. Don’t be discouraged. “Don’t assume you can’t afford it,” Debbie says. Scholarships, grants, awards and additional financial aid may be available and some programs will arrange for a job or paid internship oversees.

On paper, then, time abroad may not demand much additional money but in reality there will be extra expenses. Airfare and transportation costs are generally higher and it can be difficult for even the most conscientious student to estimate what they’ll need to put out for food, entertainment and incidentals in another country.

Plus don’t underestimate the appeal of additional travel when your student’s in another part of the world. For many kids, like Jim’s daughter when she was in New Zealand and Debbie’s son in Australia, they may feel this is their only chance to see the country or continent they’re on. While family finances will certainly come into play, letting your student dip into savings while finding ways to stretch a small travel budget will add tremendously to the experience.

Planning for a semester or year abroad involves focusing on more than just the money. Academic preparations are often necessary. Some programs have language requirements or other prerequisites — it’s your student’s job to make sure they’ve taken prescribed courses or reached proficiency in a subject. Students may also need to look at their major requirements and the impact being away from campus will have on their transcript. Smaller colleges in particular may offer specific courses during only one semester each year, making it impractical for students to be away at that time. Sometimes a school will accept foreign classes for credit towards graduation but departments won’t accept those same classes towards fulfilling major requirements.

Other opportunities for involvement in relevant activities may be available. Jim’s daughter had an internship while she was in Brazil, related to her film major, though her coursework focused on her other major, sociology. The many administrative details of studying abroad can be worked out by your student on campus.

Once your student boards the airplane, a new host of questions pop up. Jim remembers his own time abroad during college — “I could be out of contact with my parents for weeks at a time.” Most of us grew up before every student started living with a cell phone and laptop as constant companions. Today, in addition to calling, texts, Skype, email and a host of other apps make constant worldwide communication possible. Navigating time differences may pose a challenge but you will not be out of touch with your son or daughter.

 

Debbie did her own research about the programs her son was considering and encouraged him to pick one with a U.S. based support team. She wanted to know there was someone in this country she could reach in case of an emergency. You may feel differently but knowing your own comfort level is important.

 

The sense of distance, though, is an essential part of being abroad. Reflecting on what her son got out of his experience, Debbie feels that he “figured out the business side of life,” learning how to shop and travel on his own and came home with “more independence and confidence.” Jim saw similar changes in his daughters who came home “more independent, aware, grown-up.” My daughter too, returned after her program with a deeper trust in her own ability to manage new situations and places, be they airports, classrooms or offices.

NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, points out that 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. Whether in business, finance or the arts, our students are likely to interact with people from other countries in their future professional lives and a study abroad experience helps get them ready. As Jim concludes enthusiastically, “The greatest education is seeing the world.”

 

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Scott Sager, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is the father of two daughters, one in college and the other a recent graduate. With past lives as a social worker, preschool teacher and at-home dad, he brings a broad perspective to varied topics touching on family life, child development and education. He definitely gets how unpredictable the adventure of raising children can be and how every bit of information and each connection can help parents along the way.

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