What are the most important things to know when embarking on this remarkable endeavor? I'm an American girl who studied abroad in Sydney, so I have some wisdom to share on the topic.
There are two big decisions you need to make right away. They’re really obvious, and sometimes go hand in hand with deciding to study abroad in the first place: time and place.
Where in the world do you want to go? If you’re like me, the answer is everywhere. But unless you have limitless means, you’re going to have to narrow it down.
When I made this decision for the first time, I was 19 and was afraid to go somewhere English wasn’t spoken. I also wanted the safety of going through a university run program with other students from Nebraska. A month-long summer program to Oxford University was perfect.
While there, I caught the bug. No, I’m not talking about swine flu — though I did get that too unfortunately — I’m talking about the study abroad bug. The symptoms include non-stop reading of travel guides, resenting your monotonous home university, and going through withdrawal after not traveling for months. I had to study abroad again.
I knew I wanted to go for a semester abroad. But I still couldn’t quite get my head around the idea of living for months in a place where I didn’t understand the language. Where did I want to spend 5 months of my life?
Australia. The most expensive place to study abroad that I found, and according to my father, the farthest I could get from home. I would know absolutely no one. But I didn’t care that it was impractical. It was the only cure for the bug!
It took two years of planning, and massive amounts of money, but here I am, studying abroad in Sydney. But before I know it, I’ll be back home, freezing in Nebraska’s winter. So I’m living life to the fullest while I’m here. And that’s the most important piece of advice I can give.
When you study abroad, you learn to be independent. Without friends or family, or the safety of the familiar, you have to get comfortable in your own skin. You learn to adapt to new situations and roll with the punches. It could just be the laidback Aussie style rubbing off on me, but it’s important to say “no worries” when little things don’t go your way.
Through trial and error, I've learned what to do when getting ready to study abroad and what not to do during it. So after you decide time and place, there are a few things that are next on your to-do list.
There are so many program options and every one of them will be a little different. If you want to go the easy way, like I did for my first trip, then pick a program that your university organizes. They will iron out all the details — like what college you’re attending and what classes you’ll take — and all you have to do is pay for it!
If you’d like making the choices, then you can go through a study abroad company where you have the freedom to choose what university and academic program you want. A lot of the companies I looked at had similar options, but each held their own appeal. Of course, the program fees for each university, and for each study abroad company, varied.
In the end, you have to look at all your options and narrow them down by the ones who meet your main criteria, like price, classes, and location. For me, having an international internship was a must, but I also needed to keep it as cheap as possible. I went with Macquarie University, in Sydney’s suburbs, for their fantastic internship program.
Trust me, there will be a lot of it.
Everyone needs a passport. This process is easy in the states, simply taking a few photos and sending a form, but it can take months to receive it. Get it sooner rather than later.
Depending on where you’re going, you may need a visa. Australia requires a student visa, though it was easy to apply online. The only painstaking part was paying for it!
If you’re arranging your own program, then you’ll have to fill out applications for the study abroad company, then for the host university, and usually your home university will require an application as well.
Once you’ve been accepted, you can get started on registering your program with your home university and getting your subject approval forms signed. You’ll have to fill out duplicate copies, one for each university.
If your college is like mine, the International Affairs office is overworked and understaffed, which means it can take weeks to get things filed and approved. Start asap!
The paperwork can seem tedious and the process annoying, but it’s important to have all your ducks in a row before you leave the country.
There is no way around it, studying abroad is an expensive endeavor. Don’t let that discourage you; the experiences you gain are worth their weight in gold. I've certainly never heard anyone say, “studying abroad was such a waste, I should have put that money in my retirement fund instead.”
Create a budget. Program fees will be the biggest chunk. But don’t forget the daily expenses either. Like transportation, groceries, cell phone bills and housing fees. It adds up, and there’s really nothing to do but pay for it.
You’ll also want money to spend on fun things while you’re abroad. International work and study experience is priceless, but exciting cultural experiences are a part of studying abroad too. I will never forget my first time surfing or diving the Great Barrier Reef. And both of those experiences cost me hefty amounts of Aussie dollars.
There’s money available. Apply for all the scholarships you possible can. Free money is worth the trouble of writing those essays. You might qualify for government grants, but you won’t know until you look.
Get a job, or several. Money is money whether you make it flipping burgers or dog walking. And every little bit helps! Take out a loan. My French teacher said the loan she had to take out to study abroad in France for a semester was the best decision of her life.
If you’re lucky, maybe you can take out a loan from the Bank of Dad. You generally get better interest rates.
And when you're studying abroad, use that hard-earned money! Eat the local food, try learning a new skill, go to a local sports event, travel to the country’s important places. Meet new people! You don’t want to stay home every night because you’re afraid to spend the money to go have fun.
Now you know about doing your research, filing your paperwork, and getting money in any way possible, short of breaking the law. There are tons of other things to do before studying abroad, these are just what I consider to be most important. But they’re not all you need to remember. Here are five things to avoid when studying abroad.
Pick pocketing can happen to anyone, anywhere. But don’t make yourself an easier target by walking around with a map in front of your face or counting your money on the sidewalk. Do like the locals do. Try and blend in.
If you’re looking for a good time, keep it legal. There’s no reason to break the law. It can have serious consequences, from being fined to getting thrown in jail. It’s not worth it. Be smart.
It defeats the purpose of studying abroad. You’re doing it to experience NEW things, gain NEW knowledge, meet NEW people, and find out NEW things about yourself. Distance yourself from the old.
This is basically an extension of what I just said, but c’mon people, you’re studying abroad. Your friends, family, and significant other will be there when you go home. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have occasional Skype dates. It’s a great way to let everyone back home know you’re alive and well. But unless you distance yourself, you won’t get what you’re looking for from studying abroad. Remember: experience the NEW.
If you refuse to try new things, only want to eat your country’s type of food, can’t live without The Jersey Shore and happen to be completely ethnocentric, then studying abroad isn’t for you. Please don’t inflict this type of personality on innocent foreign countries. Be open to learning about how other cultures live. If something is different from how it is back home, it’s not wrong, it’s just different. Like driving on the wrong side of the road; it’s not wrong, it’s just different! Adapt. And learn to look both ways several times before crossing the road.
About The Author
Megan Kolarik is a university student with majors in International Business and International Studies. She is from Nebraska, USA, and has traveled to Europe and Australia on study abroad trips. She is currently an editorial intern for World Nomads. Megan hopes to travel to every country in the world someday. Even the dodgy ones.