Why Study Abroad?
More students than ever before are choosing to study abroad, from the always popular programs in the European countries to ones in the United Kingdom and Asia that have seen a growth in applicants. So why do they do it? The same reasons you should. Study abroad is a good opportunity to do something different, and the stories you’ll be able to tell upon your return may be worth the voyage alone. Ask around. Chances are the friends you know that have spent some time overseas count it as one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of their university careers. Some of my top 10 reasons you should consider studying abroad if you’re on the fence.
- Broaden your horizons and your view of the world.
You may not know how sheltered you’ve been until you spend a significant period of time abroad. Studying abroad gives you new perspectives on other cultures and how people outside of South Africa view our culture (cultures). Spending time overseas could make you think about adapting your world view. When visiting a developed country, you will be surprised at how easy one can settle in. Just know that you could be in for a reverse case of culture shock when you’re done with your program and ready to return home.
- Break out of your routine.
If you’re not paying much attention or feel like you are in a ‘rut’; it’s possible that you’ll get a little too comfortable on campus, getting a little bored with that same old semester to semester routine. Getting involved in different student groups or challenging yourself with more modules could give back some of that excitement you felt as a first year student, but no experience will take you more of your academic comfort zone than a study abroad program. You’ll be expected to become familiar with a new way of doing things and a new way of learning, and could potentially come back to your home university feeling a new sense of purpose or able to contribute your new learnt experiences once back.
- Explore new academic opportunities.
Sure, its fun to go abroad and focusing on enjoying your time in a new country. Of course one should try be as well balanced as possible and take opportunities to see new places and meet new people. But studying abroad is also a good opportunity to take advantage of programs that may be more impressive overseas than at your home university due to their location or a specific lecturer/supervisor who is experienced in that field. International internships, for example, could be a great way to get some experience that wouldn’t necessarily be offered at home. Interested in global economies? Try a program in China. Are you a future marine biologist? Supplement your academic record with a program off a coast of Australia. You may find that a program abroad will give you unique insights into your field, making you a more desirable job candidate post-graduation.
- Give your resume a boost.
More and more companies are opening offices overseas, both to save costs and become bigger players on the global market. Studying abroad is then a smart move on not only a personal development level, but a professional one. The skills you pick up abroad will also come in handy when you’re ready to look for that job post-graduation; not only on the preparation level and being able to correspond with overseas contacts, but being in a different cultural/professional environment and learning their ways of “how-to”. Play up your time abroad and ask for possible references so that future employers view you as an independent self-starter who isn’t afraid to take risks.
- Take advantage of an opportunity to travel.
“I wish I was able to travel more” is a common refrain you’ll likely hear once you enter the real world post-college. New stresses and demands on your time will affect how often you’ll be able to travel, and unless you work for a very generous supervisor/course coordinator who would approve a leave of absence for you to go exploring abroad, you probably won’t have the opportunity to spend months at a time overseas. To make the most of your travel opportunity during your studies abroad, look for programs that take you to various parts of a country as part of a program, or look into whether you’d be able to extend your stay abroad once your program is completed to explore bordering countries.(one might need to make sure you have applied for the correct visa’s as well as the time-frame you can use it to travel with)
- Learn a language.
If you’re interested in studying abroad in a country where the language isn’t English, it could be a great opportunity to learn a new language or brush up on a language you haven’t used since you were trying to meet those high school requirements in intro to German, Dutch or French. Being immersed in a culture where you’re going to be forced to at least memorize some conversation starters could be difficult at first, but seeing and hearing a language on a daily basis is the best way to learn a new language. Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn, but being in China and surrounded by the language for an extended period of time could just be the thing you need to master it. You’ll also be exposed to slang and nuances in the language that may not come through in any foreign language.
- Become more independent.
Balancing schoolwork with every other responsibility – or distraction – that you come across your first few years on your home University campus is one thing. Being responsible for yourself in a foreign country is another story. Few experiences force you to become independent as fast as a study abroad program. While you’ll have advisors and faculty to help you navigate your program overseas, it will be up to you to prepare for the experience by researching your intended country’s customs and traditions, and up to you to make the most of your time there. Make sure you know who your supervisor is and what their background is. It is most likely that you will have various lecturers/ supervisor who are not even from the same country you are visiting. There are many Universities who have multi-cultural staff members. This will also give you the opportunity to understand and adapt to a universal sense of multiculturalism and not just the South African sense of the word. Chances are you’ll pick up some self-confidence along the way. Being able to correspond with new faculty staff and being open to their ways of operations can be challenging at first but being adaptable is a very good character trait international companies look for. Remember that you are all in the same field/ discipline and each one has a level of understanding concerning the “lingo”.
- Develop new skills.
Studying abroad forces you out of your comfort zone and shows you that there’s much to be learned outside of the classroom/lab. You’ll not only be expected to excel in a program that may be unlike anything you’ve done at your home university, but you’ll be responsible for getting around a foreign country where you may not speak the language. The new, more independent you will probably become more resilient, and you’ll find yourself developing your communication and problem-solving skills as part of day-to-day life abroad. You may also be faced with bigger obstacles concerning your work and you find that there is no “familiarity” cushion to fall back on.
- Make friends and contacts from around the country, and the world.
The group that you’ll be studying abroad with will probably consist of college students from across the country, and, if you’re lucky, from around the world. Those friendships that you make will be forged on an intense common experience, making your bond that much stronger. Having friends in far-off places could come in handy years after your trip, too, especially if you’re looking to eventually work overseas, or are simply planning a trip on a budget and need a place to crash. Don’t underestimate your networking possibilities on a study abroad trip.
10. Have the experience of a lifetime.
All of those reasons above aside, studying abroad could be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have while in college. Think of the stories you’ll be able to tell and retell years down the line, and how much you could learn about yourself while spending time abroad. Find a program that excites you, look into potential funding sources to help pay for the costs of going abroad, and seriously consider making the leap. I doubt you’ll regret it.
Preparing for a study abroad program can be exciting, but it can also be stressful if you’re not prepared. The number of things to do that you’re responsible for may seem overwhelming at first, but if you start early enough, you should feel confident and self-assured by the time the day comes to leave your home campus behind. Here are some tips that I have followed and used during my preparation for studying abroad. Remember that you can’t do enough research before starting your program. Your intended program’s staff of advisors will also be your best sources of information if you have questions specific to your program, so don’t be afraid to ask about anything you don’t know the answer to. Liaising with the international officers is the best place to start; try stick to speaking to one person who will be familiar to your case and who will get to know you. Also, It is very good manners to take over a small South African gift for your host supervisor and International correspondent who have been with you for this journey.
Leaving for a study abroad program isn’t something you do last minute. There are a number of things you need to do before you’re really ready to leave your home country for your adventure – and educational experience – abroad. Here are the most important tasks you’ll be responsible for:
The Passport: You’re not going anywhere unless you have one and it’s up to date. If you’re applying for a new passport, give yourself at least three months (even more if you like being on the safe side) before you’re set to board that plane. You’ll be applying for the travel document/ visa at the country of choice’s embassy, and it isn’t strange for there to be a backlog of applications during busier times of the year (months before holidays and spring/summer breaks, for example if you plan on going to northern hemisphere universities). Give yourself a few months even if you’re just applying for a renewal passport. While you can expedite your request, we’re certain you’d rather not pay that fee, plus overnight delivery costs.
Immunizations: Make sure you know whether you should be getting any immunizations before leaving for your study abroad program. Your study abroad program correspondents or advisors should provide this information for you (even checking on the embassy’s website), but it’s not a bad idea to check what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Don’t procrastinate on this, as you may need to make an appointment with your doctor to get the required immunizations. Also, depending on what kind of medical aid scheme you are on, you may have to pay for these in cash.
Insurance: Does your insurance cover you while you’re studying abroad? You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re forced to pay for a medical emergency out of pocket in a foreign country! If your existing coverage won’t help you much overseas, or it only covers you for a 3 month period; consider exploring travel insurance policies. Your program may even offer comprehensive coverage plans for students studying abroad.
Additional Documents: Depending on the program, you may be required to apply for a student visa or a visiting student visa. Check with the embassy of the foreign country that you are planning to visit for up-to-date visa and other entry requirements. Different visas require different documentation so make a list of the originals you need and make COPIES. Some visa applications require South Africans to show a medical exemption form regarding TB. This may be from X-rays, antigen testing or sputum tests. The most indicative and common one is the X-ray and once again depending on your medical aid scheme, you will have to pay for this too.
Do Your Research:
By the time the day comes that you’re leaving for your study abroad program, you should be an expert about your chosen destination. If you do your research, there won’t be many surprises once you get off that plane in your new home for the next several months. Here is a sampling of things you should know before leaving for your program, although the more research you do, the better off you’ll be:
Weather: Knowing the kind of weather to expect will greatly inform your packing decisions. If your chosen program will require some travel in different regions, make sure you know how the weather will vary. Pack Smart. Smart travellers are smart packers. Since you’ll be spending a decent period of time abroad, the pressure is on you to make the tough decisions on what to bring and what to leave behind. Here’s a tip: pack only what you absolutely need. Leave the things you “may” need behind to save space, especially if your program is one that requires a good deal of moving around from location to location. If you’ve done your research, you should have a good idea of the kind of weather to expect while abroad. If you can’t live without electrical appliances like that favourite hair dryer, make sure you know whether you’ll be able to plug it in while abroad. Most countries will have different outlets than you’re used to, so you’ll need to pick up adapters. Better yet, find an inexpensive model while you’re overseas and leave it behind when you’re done with your program abroad.
Money: What’s the exchange rate in your destination? What kind of money will you be using? You should also know the best ways to handle your money and spending. Make sure you have the appropriate documents for you to open an account at a bank in your visiting country. They are usually the standard documents such as your passport, proof of accommodation and the proof of registration at the visiting university. You should have a good idea of what things cost, and look into buying an overseas sim-card so that you are able to communicate with friends and family back home. Make sure your bills back home are taken care of, too. If you have a car, would it be best to put it in storage or ask ‘n family member/friend to drive it for a couple of months. You would then also have to be taking into account the possibility of your car insurance not covering accidents when you out of the country- CHECK EVERYTHING. Also notify you bank in your home country that you are leaving the country. If you are stuck in a sticky situation financially- you at least have your own bank cards and they will be activated for overseas use. It will give your cheque and credit cards more security if they are stolen or lost and abnormal activity occurs as the bank have been notified to keep an extra eye on your accounts.
Language: What language do they speak where you’re going? The most well-informed traveller will have a few useful phrases in the native language ready to use, as you won’t be surrounded by program staff that will be able to help you 24 hours a day.
Culture: Learn about the country you’re planning to visit and the behaviours that may be inappropriate overseas. Dress accordingly – what may work for you in South Africa may be inappropriate overseas. Know how your intended country feels about your home country, the kinds of foods you’ll be eating, and things like greetings and gratuities. Your program’s advisors won’t give you all of this information, so a lot will be up to you in terms of making a good impression.
Expect the best, but prepare for the worst. Keep your valuables in a carry-on, along with a change of clothes and toiletries (within airport security volume allowance) in case your checked luggage is lost for some indefinite period of time. Make sure your luggage is easily identifiable, especially if you have that black roller suitcase most travellers own. Tie a colourful bow or a piece of string to it. Make copies of all of your important documents and prescriptions in case you lose anything abroad. (Another note- if you are on chronic medication, find out if you can get a bulk supply from your pharmacy by note from your doctor. Otherwise, make sure you can get your medication abroad). Border patrol usually asks you to present the very same documents you had to submit for your visa application so keep those with you in your carry-on. If you’re bringing any electronics (laptop/ iPad), consider taking out insurance policies, or checking into whether your existing policies cover travel abroad. Dressing for travelling you want to be comfortable, trust me, some people can fly for 12hrs or more wearing skinny jeans- I unfortunately, am not one of those people. Opt for comfortable tights/ tracksuit pants- (making sure of course you are not sloppy if someone is picking you up on the arrivals side) and a T-shirt. Also have clean clothes in your carry-on just in case. Always wear socks when travelling; when travelling through the United States and sometimes in the UK, you are required to remove your shoes and belt and nothing could be worse than hopping through a busy airport security barefoot and making sure your trousers don’t fall down. And when you want to sit comfortably on the plane, at least you’ll be able to remove your shoes with confidence. It’s always a good idea to pack a beanie or a scarf in your carry as it can get chilly on the plane, but do not wear them inside the airport in-between security checks as it can be a bit of a –dress-undress-dress situation that becomes annoying and you can become an easy target for pick-pockets while you are distracted with all the little pieces you are carrying around-try keep things to a minimum and always be aware of your surroundings. I am a thirsty traveller so I always buy a 1L bottle of water at the duty free before the flight so as not to call the flight attendant all the time for re-fills. But do not buy any liquids before security as they will confiscate it. Always make sure you are familiar with the security check requirements, you do not want to hold up the line, get stuck in an interrogation or lose your expensive perfume. Worst case- you are late for your flight! I remember the once I was stuck behind a lady for 10 minutes while she argued about her specially formulated facial product and not being able to take it with her on the flight. Needless to say, she did not win the argument, I almost missed my flight and I thoroughly believe security had fat-pickings of everything at the end of their shift.
If this is your first time travelling through an international airport- it can get a bit overwhelming when you look at the huge boards with all the flight numbers. A few things to be certain of- when you have a lay-over and a connecting flight; make certain your check-in luggage is sent straight through to your final destination and you have both your boarding passes. Usually, the boarding gate and terminal number for your connecting flight will not be known when you check in for your first flight so when you land at your lay-over- and have gone through security- be sure to keep an eye on the board for your next flight number and you will find to which terminal you need to head for and which gate will be boarding your final flight. There are many information desks and airport lay-out maps available so do not be afraid to ask for assistance.
Experience is the best teacher, but you always have to start somewhere.