Should Your College Student Spend a Semester Abroad?

Should Your College Student Spend a Semester Abroad?

College is a time to explore, discover and ignite passions. One of the most unique and rewarding ways for college students to expand their horizons is to take a semester abroad. No matter where you go, spending a semester immersed in another culture and out of your comfort zone can help you develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and will likely heighten your creativity, social skills and enthusiasm for life.

While some college students shy away from a semester abroad for various reasons, such as financial restrictions, scheduling conflicts or fears of missing American life, many of these concerns can be eased by visiting the campus study abroad office. As studying abroad continues to become increasingly popular, study abroad offices are likewise becoming increasingly resourceful and able to help students in a variety of ways.

Just like at many universities, Northwestern University’s study abroad office provides its students with ample resources to plan for a term abroad. Students considering an academic year, semester, quarter or summer abroad are encouraged to meet with a study abroad advisor, academic advisor, career advisor and/or peer advisor to help them choose a program and plan their time abroad wisely as well as to avoid unnecessary scheduling conflicts. Alicia Stanley, associate director of the Study Abroad Office at Northwestern, says that study abroad participants are eligible to earn credit toward graduation and fulfill major, minor and other degree requirements, making the experience an integral part of their undergraduate career. In addition, Northwestern’s financial aid may be used for participation in affiliated and NU-sponsored study abroad programs, although students studying in unaffiliated abroad programs are ineligible for financial aid.

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Without a doubt, spending four or so months in a foreign land can be scary, intimidating and unpredictable. While it is daunting, the benefits of a study abroad experience are priceless. Not only can students become proficient in another language and more aware of other cultures, but they can also learn a lot about their own strengths, weaknesses and passions. Some programs offer opportunities to conduct independent research and pursue internships, which, in turn, help students gain other valuable skills.

Cathleen Keenan, creative writing professor at The Institute for American Universities (IAU), says studying abroad is a great resume-builder and a prime opportunity to learn a foreign language. But, she says there are also significant intangible benefits.

“Those are important, but the real, lasting, lifelong value comes via the qualities it allows you to further develop in yourself: resilience, empathy, courage, can-do, having a sense of humor when things inevitably go awry (and they will), openness to new ways of seeing, an awareness of your own tender spots, and learning that the world won’t end when you make mistakes – just to name a few,” she says.

Understanding that the world is a big place filled with so many different and beautiful people, languages, traditions and ways of life is a humbling and inspiring experience. Christine Armstrong, French professor at Denison University, emphasizes how living abroad significantly strengthens the student’s capacity to be an excellent learner.

“Students really learn to compare and contrast,” she says. “They continuously develop their critical thinking as they try to answer ‘why’ people in another culture behave differently.”

Asking questions, observing and reflecting all serve to create a more thoughtful and compassionate population. Of course, these skills can be developed at American universities, but they are significantly enhanced abroad because one is placed outside of his or her comfort zone.

Both homestays and apartment living provide culturally enriching experiences for students. Armstrong says homestays are ideal because they give students the opportunity “to observe and experience the identity construct at the family level.”

“In becoming part of a host family, students get a chance to participate in an aspect of everyday life that foreign students living in university housing will not be exposed to,” Armstrong says.

I spent a semester studying abroad in the enchanting, sun-soaked town of Aix-en-Provence, France. My experience was incredible. Josette, my host mom, taught me so much about the French culture – which markets to visit in town, daily etiquette, the best way to order a cup of coffee that is larger than an espresso shot, and how and why holidays are celebrated. Not only did living in a homestay strengthen my understanding of the French language and culture, but my semester studying abroad taught me how to adapt, socialize, think critically, be adventurous, plan trips, problem solve, adjust, and celebrate both simple and significant accomplishments. My experience also ignited an enthusiasm for travel, and has helped me to recognize the extraordinary in life’s ordinary moments.

Eileen Baer

Learning how to communicate with people who spoke a different language, arriving safely to my travel destinations, navigating new cities, and finding joy in the simplest of things, such as comprehending a quickly spoken French sentence, were all humbling experiences. Bringing these new insights back to my life in the States has been exciting and incredibly beneficial. So, if you (or your son or daughter) are even considering a study abroad experience, do it. You will never regret taking time to study abroad, but you will regret not seizing an opportunity that is much harder to come by once you enter the professional world.

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