Study Abroad or College Abroad?

When I was a Bachelor’s student, I had the opportunity to spend a trimester College abroad at Flensburg University in Germany. I was studying German at the time and thought it would be easy once I was accepted to the exchange program. But several things stood in my way. First, I hadn’t anticipated the cost. I was told that because there were very few student dormitories in Flensburg, I might have to find private accommodation and I would have to pay for this out of pocket. Then I was told that while I was in Germany, my home school would charge me higher tuition fees in order to compensate the university in Flensburg. When I added up the cost of a round trip flight from the US and some of the traveling around Europe I wanted to do while I was there, I was astonished.

Holly

Second, and most decisively, I was overwhelmed. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be there long enough to really experience all the things I was reading so much about in some of the preparatory materials I was given.  Part of me suspected that I might understand German culture better by reading all the materials given to me than spending a mere 3 months there.  I would hardly believe that a foreigner would truly “get” the nuances and complexities of the United States after only 3 months.  Was all this money worth it?

So, much to my regret, I let the fear overwhelm me and decided not to go.  But the desire to go abroad never quite subsided.  After graduation, I had plenty of time to wonder if I had made the right decision.  So on a whim I decided to Google “Masters degrees in Germany.”  One year later, I was fully enrolled in a Master’s program in Bremen, Germany.  And this lead to an exchange program in Hungary, a fellowship in Israel, and a doctorate in Berlin, and another fellowship in Spain.  Seven years later, my university abroad experience is still not over.

For those considering studying abroad at all, there is a lot of information available and many choices to sort through.  But perhaps one of the first things that many don’t consider, but should, is whether semester abroad or college abroad is right for you.  While much of the advice and preparations for students wishing to study abroad in either capacity are similar, there are a few key differences between spending a short period of time abroad as a study abroad student or directly enrolling and completing a degree full-time at a university overseas.

Learning the Language and Cultural Immersion

The first sign that I was comfortable communicating in German took place in a health insurance office.  I successfully negotiated a lower rate in German, and it was shortly thereafter that I began to watch German movies and really understand the subtle humor (even if I didn’t find it particularly funny), instead of simply following the dialogue.  I’m fairly certain that my language skills wouldn’t have progressed along these lines in a short-term study abroad program.

The difference in time commitments between semesters spent abroad versus fully enrolling abroad may be more than obvious, but the consequences of spending more time abroad are less so.  Studying abroad for a semester can be an undeniably rewarding experience, but if your main motivation for going overseas is cultural immersion or language fluency, you might consider university abroad instead.  The average American study abroad student spends only eight weeks abroad, according to the Institute for International Education. But even longer study abroad programs such as semester-long stays may seem like a long time at the outset, but between getting settled in, administrative matters, and class work, the time will pass quickly.  If you’re like most study abroad students and you embark on an English-language program, this is clearly advantageous for academic success but it is also quite disincentivizing in terms of language acquisition.

It’s easy to gravitate towards other English native-speakers outside of university, and within university you will also make most of your friends in English, at least initially. When you spend a year or several years abroad, the temptation to surround yourself with culturally similar people wears off eventually, and you’ll have much more time to make friends in a variety of settings beyond the classroom.  Simply put, the more time you spend in a foreign culture the more you can appreciate why people act the way they do.  This is why I highly recommend going abroad for longer than a semester—a year at least.  And I recommend that semester abroad students consider locations off the beaten track if possible, in order to radically break free from what is familiar and truly challenge oneself, even if only for a few months.  This may not be totally possible as a college abroad student, as accredited and competitive degree programs are not as readily available in radically different countries than in Europe, the North America, New Zealand and Australia.

Culture Shock

Of course, truly integrating takes more than just time.  The term “culture shock” makes cultural integration sound terrifying, but in my experience it is anything but shocking.  To be sure, you will experience loneliness, awkwardness, and bewilderment if you chose to study abroad.  But real culture “shock”—the mental and emotional process one goes through as one wades through a foreign culture and suddenly comes up for air with a new appreciation for the logic with which that culture operates—doesn’t happen immediately or even shortly after arrival.  I didn’t really experience culture shock until about nine months after moving to Germany, and one of the lowest valleys took place about 18 months in.  Culture shock is the gradual realization that even the most banal things are surprisingly unfamiliar, such as going to the grocery store or watching television.  It is knowing that despite all your best efforts, you may never fully “fit” into your surroundings.  In many ways, culture shock is the process of bringing together a split personality—the person you are in a foreign country and the person you are at home.  It doesn’t happen overnight and in fact is a process that may never fully resolve itself, even if you spend decades living abroad.  The type of culture shock you’re likely to experience during a semester abroad will be of a somewhat superficial nature; feeling frustrated by the chronic inability for people to show up on time, or having to re-calibrate your sense of meaning as people say “no” when they really wish to say “yes.”  But culture shock during college abroad will come and go in stages and will probably involve any number of conflicting emotions:  homesickness, excessive happiness, hostility towards your host country at times and hostility towards your home country at other times, helplessness, and of course, those moments where something about your host country and your relationship with it is brought to light and you feel a sense of wholeness again.  So while university abroad is certainly more challenging when it comes to culture shock, it is also potentially more rewarding in terms of personal growth, if you embrace both its peaks and valleys.

Cost

One wouldn’t be wrong to assume that semester abroad is cheaper than college abroad, but in fact the cost calculation may be a bit more complex.  The United States charges the highest tuition fees in the world, but tuition fees in other countries are comparatively low or even free.  Therefore, depending upon what type of study abroad program you enroll in, you may be paying extraordinary tuition fees to your home institution while attending classes at a school that doesn’t charge tuition at all.  Sometimes, universities charge even higher fees while attending semester abroad in order to compensate for an unbalanced exchange between the two schools.  As the number of English-language programs increase throughout the world, the opportunities to go to college abroad that charges reasonable tuition or even no tuition are rapidly expanding.  One can save not only on tuition but also on living costs.  Some of the more popular destinations for study abroad also happen to be among the more expensive places to live, such as Paris or London.  College abroad, on the other hand, can be done in smaller, less expensive places that, while lacking famous sites, may be perfectly livable and perhaps a better representation of how the average local lives.

Financing options for study abroad were more abundant than options available for college abroad, but I think this is changing. The Erasmus Mundus is perhaps one of the largest and most ambitious scholarship schemes meant to attract international students.  As certain “emerging economy” countries seek legitimacy and begin investing heavily in public education, some are seeking to recruit more and more international students with attractive scholarship and stipend offers.  While student loans are less common in countries beyond the US and the UK, some are beginning to offer low-interest loans to international students to help them pay the modest tuition fees or supplement their living costs.  Some prominent publications such as Foreign Policy Magazine are calling for the US government to expand its study abroad programs such as the Gilman Scholarship to students wishing to directly enroll abroad.

Safety

Safety is among parent’s and administrator’s chief concerns when sending students abroad.  Generally speaking, studying abroad is a very safe activity and I think much of the concerns are greatly exaggerated.  While there is no replacement for good old-fashioned common sense as a study or college abroad student, I actually think that should your safety be compromised, you’re probably slightly safer as a college abroad student.  This is simply due to the fact that a college abroad student is more likely to know the city better after living there for an extended period of time, know where police stations and hospitals are located, know the culture better and can better sense if and when a situation is becoming dangerous, and are also likely to have a better grasp of the language in order to communicate being injured or harassed.  On the other hand, if you’re on an exchange program that is heavily supported by personnel both abroad and at home, they have streamlined processes in place in the event of an emergency, including evacuation if need be.  As a college abroad student, you are more likely to have to rely on your own judgment.

Career Post-Graduation

Any decision regarding one’s education needs to take career aspirations into account.  Study abroad programs can delay graduation if credit transfer and other issues are not properly planned for, but generally this is easily avoided.  A long-standing program will have worked out grade and credit transfer issues, and will have a streamlined process for representing your time and courses abroad on your transcripts.  Study abroad can be the best of both worlds: having a deep cultural immersion experience while still receiving a degree from a recognized university in the US.  Attending university abroad can be a little trickier.  College abroad should be done not only for the opportunity to live abroad and to become culturally literate, but also if the degree and the education will help you achieve your professional and personal goals.  While you may be attending one of the most prestigious schools in your host country, few in the US may have ever heard of it.  It is essential to know if your degree will be accepted by employers and/or graduate schools in the US, especially if you plan to move back to the US to find employment.  For most professions, there is no reason to believe that a degree won’t be accepted as long as the degree is coming from a legitimate and accredited university abroad, and your marks are satisfactory.

However, there are some professions, such as pre-law, where having a foreign degree might make it difficult to go forward in the US.  The credentials of a university will probably have been evaluated prior to the establishment of a study abroad program, but as a college abroad student you’ll have to make much of these judgments yourself regarding the applicability of your degree to your future endeavors.

Information and Guidance

Finally, because semester abroad is a slightly more popular option than university abroad, although increasingly less so, the information available for study abroad students is plentiful, while those pursuing college abroad may have to be a little more self-reliant.  Organizations like Abroad Scount, the Erasmus Mundus Program, and my book College Abroad are making up for this gap.  My advice however, especially for semester abroad students, is to gather information and prepare yourself properly, but to also maintain a healthy distance and avoid information overload.  There is something to be said for preparing for the most important aspects of moving overseas but also throwing yourself into the unknown with a bit of boldness and open-mindedness.  There is a risk in reading and preparing too much and therefore not leaving any room for growth and leading to potential disappointment.  Ironically perhaps, it is more important to really know what you’re getting yourself into as a college abroad student as supposed to a study abroad student.  Study abroad students go overseas often as part of a prepackaged program that has been perfected over time, leaving little room for problems that could result from a lack of preparedness.  Still however, because study abroad programs are relatively short, if a student is unhappy or under-prepared, it is not impossible to either stick it out for a few months or simply return home and continue classes at the home institution.  No such exit strategy exists with college abroad, and therefore one has to be a little bit more certain that one can eventually find something resembling a comfort zone.  So if you’re seriously considering college instead of study abroad, take advantage of the emerging resources available to you, but know from the outset that you’ll have to do much of the research and preparations on your own.  Companies and agents are emerging that are trained to help the international student navigate the process, but much of these services are still in their infancy and may require payment.  With both study and college abroad, gather the resources available but treat them as just the introduction to the story, and then write the rest of your adventure yourself.

Author of College Abroad: How to get an International Education, a Degree, and a New Perspective on Life and the World.  Holly grew up in Colorado and has spent the past six years studying abroad in Germany, Hungary, Israel and Spain.  Follow Holly on Twitter @fan4bronco or visit her blog at morelikeamoat.wordpress.com

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