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A Guide to Gap Year and Semester OpportunitiesCambria Pilger
As another semester begins, a new crop of juniors departs for their study abroad programs.
Much has been written about this topic: destinations, logistics, educational and personal benefits, etc. Although it may seem as if almost every college student spends time in a foreign country, the reality is that the majority of students do not study abroad. At the liberal arts university where my middle son is a junior, forty percent of the class chooses to study in a foreign country and, according to Forbes magazine, fewer than ten percent of students nationally do.
There are many reasons why students may decide that studying abroad is not for them, and a surprising number of advantages that can accompany that decision. When my oldest son was in college, he was elected to a position on the Greek Counsel for his junior year, a position that required a full year commitment. It’s not that he wasn't interested in going abroad, but he was very involved in Greek life and did not want to pass up the chance to take a leadership role. He ended up loving the position, which came with a tremendous amount of responsibility. I saw him grow and mature that year in so many ways and felt that he had made an excellent decision for himself.
A friend’s son also did not go abroad so that he could serve as editor-in-chief of the college newspaper his junior year. The experience and skills he gained have helped him on his career path. My husband sweetly pointed out that he would never have met me if he had studied abroad because he was a resident advisor in my dorm his junior year, another example of how passing up one opportunity can lead to another.
My middle son considered overseas study but could not find a program which fit his specific interests. His housing situation also played a role in his decision to stay on campus. He got an amazing number in the housing lottery and was able to get an on-campus apartment in a new building with his friends. If he had chosen to go abroad, he would have had to give up that apartment and live in a single in another building, an option which did not thrill him.
Other students may have full year leases and might not have the funds to leave their apartments unoccupied; subtenants can be difficult to find (or prohibited by the landlord). My son has also stated that he is glad he will be around this spring to see his close senior friends graduate. He is fortunate that he’s had other opportunities to travel, including teen tours and family trips. He hopes to pursue a career in the apparel industry with a focus on sustainable manufacturing, which I imagine will give him ample opportunity to see the world.
Finances may also be a determining factor in the decision to go abroad. Europe — a popular study abroad destination — is expensive, even with the plummeting value of the euro against the U.S. dollar; the round trip airfare alone can be prohibitive. In addition, not everyone’s family can afford to visit them if they go abroad, which can mean many months without seeing parents and siblings.
Some students may feel unsure about going so far from home, possibly to a country where they do not speak the language or know anyone. Not every twenty-year-old is adventurous and this is natural.
For students who want a new academic experience or change of scenery without leaving the country, there are programs at United States colleges that might be a better fit. After experiencing one of the harshest New England winters in history, my son’s friend Pierre, a Florida native, chose to complete coursework in cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California in lieu of studying abroad. In addition to classes, he interned at an entertainment agency, which cemented his desire to pursue a career in that industry. The frosting on the cake: connections he made in Los Angeles helped him land a job for after graduation.
If there is a program or field of study not offered at your student’s college, it may be worth looking at other universities to see if a semester as a visiting student can be arranged. Your student should check with their school to see how credits can be applied towards their major and graduation requirements. Many colleges and universities participate in domestic exchange programs. The National Student Exchange is another resource for opportunities.
Although a semester abroad can be wonderful for some, it isn't ideal for all students. If circumstances don't allow for studying in a foreign country, encourage your student to embrace all that’s positive about spending the semester NOT abroad. The extra time spent at school may open up new friendships and unexpected experiences. The road is long and the world will still be waiting when the time is right.
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