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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The World as Your Classroom: Traveling as a Study Abroad Learner

Research shows that students who go abroad, as compared to ones who stay home, may be inclined to a broader world-view. International understanding and a care for international issues are two general indicators of the students who are more likely to self-select for enrollment in a global education program, but there are a variety of factors that might aide in motivating the less-certain (but curious about giving it a try) study abroad applicant. International travel leads to a greater understanding of the self, and students return with a greater global-mindedness.

Study abroad programs offer students a unique opportunity to grow academically, professionally and personally.

Academically, international students are presented with the opportunity to earn college credits while immersing themselves in an educational system that can be drastically different than what they are accustomed to at home. Some study abroad travelers describe their educational experience as being the “full-time learning” that they expected from higher education. Many students will take on a full class-load while traveling abroad while also learning the culture in which they become a temporary part of. International students have the opportunity to fine-tune their conversational level second language, or pick up a new one altogether. Being surrounded by native speakers forces the learner to be immersed in the language, which usually leads to a higher retention and a greater chance for fluency.

The most commonly observed impacts on students who studied abroad are better foreign language proficiency, more knowledge about the culture, politics, and society of the host country, and altered perceptions of global networking.

Many students who return from a study abroad travel experience report that they found their ideal career path while on their trip, or at least a new direction of interest that will lead them to a fulfilling job after college. With exposure to global issues and international opportunities, professional development is a large part of the benefit of study abroad travel. The Institute of International Education’s report on “Open Doors” described the value of international study abroad travel as the “competitive edge” that college grads are often missing for when it comes time to apply for jobs. With an extremely competitive job market, and with an increased number of applicants holding college degrees, study abroad provides an advantage to these special travelers. As a way to stand out, students who study abroad can usually demonstrate a higher-level of understanding for other cultures, perhaps have learned a second language while traveling, and usually have a better skill set when it comes to intercultural communication. These are all highly valued skills, especially as the world becomes more connected globally.

In terms of personal growth, studying abroad provides many students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of how they fit into the world. Students learn to depend on themselves in a real-world setting, ask questions, remain proactive, and ask for help. By putting themselves in these vulnerable and often uncomfortable situations, students gain the benefits of increased self-awareness and self-confidence. Being flexible and open to new people, places, cultures and values affords student travelers with platforms for problem-solving. In many cases, these travelers become better team players, as they learn that it is okay to rely on others for assistance, while discovering their own strengths that they can offer to a group.

Traveling for the sake of international education offers students the chance to challenge their personal beliefs, and break down stereotypes and misconceptions about foreign cultures. Student travelers can gain a wealth of insights about not only themselves and their own biases, but will be introduced to people who will serve to demonstrate just how much all people have in common- regardless of where they come from or how they live.
"... a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to
scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own..."
While studying abroad may sound like an escape from reality, student travelers should be wary of some of the challenges that will occur before, during and after their trip. Pre-departure preparations are key to making your study abroad experience a positive one. Thanks to technology, student travelers have access to a wealth of information about their host country, and can take the necessary measures to make their transition as smooth as possible. Language guides, cultural briefings, and city maps are just a few examples of things that travelers can have handy before they depart. With virtual communication capabilities like Skype, students can even connect with their future classmates or roommates.  

While most colleges and universities require their study abroad leaners to enroll in international health insurance, most do not offer travel assistance memberships. Students who will be traveling with any study abroad program should inquire about Travel Assistance membership, as international insurance does not necessarily protect them in all emergencies/ unexpected situations. While travel insurance may protect the traveler in an umbrella sort of way, many details (like medical evacuations, repatriations and prescription replacements) are overlooked. Pre-departure is a good time to review the fine print of your insurance and also enroll in a travel assistance membership.

Students who are not frequent travelers often find themselves facing a serious case of homesickness. While this can be difficult, again, technology can aide in alleviating this discomfort. Facetime, Skype and other international communication programs can reconnect travelers and their families. After the trip is over, travelers returning from study abroad trips should also note that while culture shock can occur upon arriving in their destination country, it can also occur when returning home to their native country. When a traveler becomes accustomed to their new environment, returning back to “regular life” can present them with unforeseen challenges. While this shouldn’t be a deterrent from embarking on this kind of trip, students should be aware that they might face challenges they wouldn’t expect long after they have returned from their adventure.

In general, using study abroad as a means to travel the world is a great idea- as it comes with a variety of benefits and opportunities for growth for all kinds of learners. Margaret Mead once said, "As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own." And if one thing is for certain, traveling will do just that.

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