Study Abroad: Where Will Your Education Take You?

By Samuel G. Smith on Monday, September 10, 2012

Got the urge to travel the world? Grab your passport and pack your bags. Many colleges have opportunities that introduce students to other cultures, help develop personal and professional skills and gain a more global perspective—all while getting credit toward your degree.

According to the Association of International Educators, only about 1 percent of higher education students in the United States studied abroad during the 2008-09 academic year. But with so much to gain and with plenty of opportunities for financial assistance, it’s never been a better time to consider international study. Plus, you might never get the chance to travel as much and as easily as you can during your college years, so why not take advantage of the opportunity while you can?

Where You Can Go

Programs can take you just about anywhere, including Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, Asia and the Middle East. Organizations such as the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) and the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) offer options for students interested in traveling abroad. With ISEP, you can travel to more than 50 countries through either an exchange program or through direct enrollment. Many universities have partnerships with institutions abroad so you don’t even have to go through another organization.

Options vary depending on your institution, so if you’re planning on studying abroad during your time in college, include this in your criteria when making your decision to enroll. Although Arkansas State University and Hendrix College are the only ISEP exchange partners in the state, different institutions offer lots of other options. DeDe Long, director of the study abroad program at the University of Arkansas, said the department sends about 600 students abroad every year through non-ISEP programs. Harding University has international campuses located around the world in South America, Europe, Africa and Australia, and it sends 48 percent of each of its graduating classes on study abroad programs. “Most universities send their students to study at foreign universities while we send our students with our faculty to our own campuses,” said Jeffrey Hopper, dean of international programs at Harding. “Ours are more like extension campuses.”

And don’t think you have to go the four-year route for study abroad opportunities. Northwest Arkansas Community College offers student trips every year.

How You Can Pay For It

Think study abroad is an educational luxury? Think again. In some cases such as in the ISEP exchange program, tuition and fees paid to your home college also apply abroad, making international travel an option for everyone. Depending on your program, financial aid like scholarships and grants received at your home college can be applied abroad as well. Kat Marsh, a student at Hendrix College, traveled to Thailand through ISEP. “[ISEP] allowed me to study abroad paying the same tuition I was for Hendrix, keeping all the scholarships I already had,” she said. And with financial aid sources available to help out with airfare, lodging and other non-tuition expenses, travel could be more affordable than you think. ISEP, CIEE and the University of Arkansas offer several scholarships of varying amounts to study abroad students, and Arkansas State University has a travel voucher program that can give you up to $1,000 in airfare assistance.

Kelsey Michael, a student at Harding, studied in Italy for a semester under the Harding University in Florence program. Scholarships covered her tuition, and she applied for financial aid that covered the cost of travel and housing. “Finally, I worked as the women’s resident assistant while at HUF to provide myself with a small amount of extra spending money,” she said.

Look into even more avenues for assistance such as study abroad endowments like those at Henderson State University and Hendrix College. “Don’t be afraid to ask your institution for help. Usually, there is money there that people don’t know about,” said Caitlyn Sears, a student at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith who traveled to Belize on a faculty-led trip.

What You Can Get Out of It

As much as you want. If you’re studying a foreign language in high school, studying in a country where it’s spoken is a great way to use what you’ve learned in the real world. And if you’re not studying another language, you can always travel to an English-speaking country.

Regardless of where you choose, you can be sure to grow as a person, foster a global perspective in yourself and experience and embrace another culture. “[Students] gain a lot of personal benefit,” said Carl Lindquist, coordinator of the study abroad program at Arkansas State University. Increasing your fluency in a foreign language, adapting to a new culture and making friends with people in a different country can all be boosts to self-confidence, not to mention the academic and professional gains. According to a survey by the Institute of International Education, 66 percent of surveyed employers said they took study abroad experience into consideration during candidates’ hiring and promotion, making it a great addition to any résumé.

What Else You Should Know
If you’re serious about the idea of studying abroad, here are four essentials to keep in mind.

  1. A passport is required to enter a foreign country no matter where you go. You can apply for a passport at most post offices, but the process takes four to six weeks, so plan ahead. Since a passport is a must for international travel of any kind, even if you’re not planning on studying abroad it’s a great idea to get one − just in case you want to take that last-minute spring break trip to Mexico.
  2. Health. Most international study programs require health insurance. Signing up for the International Student Identity Card will give you some basic medical coverage while studying abroad as well as provide some perks like student discounts. And depending on where you go, you might be required to get up-to-date on your immunizations. Check the requirements of the country you’re interested in traveling to.
  3. Visa. Depending on the length of your stay, you might need to obtain a visa, an official document that gives you permission to stay in the country. Countries might require visa applicants to apply in person, which in some cases means a mini road trip to the nearest embassy or consulate many miles away. As always, researching and planning ahead will go a long way in preventing any unpleasant surprises.
  4. Courses. You might only be able to take certain courses abroad, so make sure you talk with an academic advisor. They can help you fit a study abroad trip into your degree plan. At the same time, a university in another country might offer courses not available at your home school, making study abroad a great way to take classes you wouldn’t be able to normally. “Going abroad may cause students to be off a semester in terms of their projected date of graduation,” said Drew Smith, director of International Programs at Henderson State University. “We try to work with them on the courses that they take so they can get course credit at their home university.”

Short Term Travel

Not ready for a semester or longer commitment but still want to travel? Don’t sweat it – lots of colleges have opportunities for shorter length study, such as faculty-led programs and trips for special topics. Besides being an ISEP direct enrollment partner, the University of Central Arkansas offers several faculty-led trips lasting from 10 days to a month every summer. With over 30 international partners, UCA sent nearly 200 students abroad in the last academic year, most of whom did the short-term thing.

“These types of programs are a great way for inexperienced international travelers to get their feet wet so they feel confident moving on to a longer, more independent program,” said Therese Pollard, coordinator of study abroad at UCA.

Whether you lean more toward long-term or short-term study, you’re sure to gain a lot of experience and make lasting memories. Shenetta Payne, a student at Arkansas State University, did both. After studying in Turkey for a semester she took a 10-day trip to India for the summer. “I definitely prefer the semester-long trip better,” she said. “With the long-term, I learned true independence and how to navigate and cope in an unfamiliar environment. I developed a love for the people, and I feel like I have a second home now.”

Sarah Hall, a student at the University of Arkansas, studied in Italy for a semester in 2008 under the Humanities in Rome program at UA and in England for a summer in 2010 under Cambridge University’s Pembroke-King Program. Her advice to students thinking about study abroad? “It’s what I tell my summer camp kids when they get up on the high dive platform. Look straight in front of you and jump. If you like it, do it again. If not, then at least you had the experience.”