Before Studying Abroad, Read These Tips!
Where will you go? Will you travel to the rolling hills of Northern Spain, the bustle of busy London streets, or to a tropical outpost in South America? Wherever you long to travel, and whatever your educational and career goals, there is a study-abroad program for you. Studying and living abroad is an eye-opening experience, one that encourages maturation, intelligence and a globally tolerant mindset. It can make you see your own country in a whole new light!
Studying abroad is also a clever choice to enhance your current college curriculum, and an enjoyable way to better qualify for future career prospects. Although the benefits are many, preparing to study abroad takes a lot of preparation and research on the part of the student. You must choose a program, arrange for travel and housing, familiarize yourself with the customs and laws of your host country, and much more. For the best experience possible, research the country thoroughly!
There are a myriad of different study-abroad programs available that dramatically differ from one another in regards to location, areas of study, duration and cost. It's important to consider all these factors when choosing your program or university and to find one that best fits your personal needs and preferences, academic circumstances, and future career goals. For example, would it be beneficial to take classes in a foreign language, or will you need to take your courses primarily in English? Also, how much time are you willing or able to invest in the trip? Money is also an important factor when selecting a school or program; remember that housing, food and recreation will increase your study-abroad costs well beyond the price of the program. On the other hand, researching and applying for any grants or scholarships available may enable you to participate in a program that wasn't financially feasible before. Also remember that choosing a program dealing with (or closely related to) your major is key: it will give you a more in-depth, globally sensitive understanding of the field, and the fact that you've studied abroad will probably be enticing to future employers.
Your housing while overseas is another important detail to research and plan thoroughly. Quite a few study-abroad programs will take care of housing details for students, but if your chosen program isn't one of them, or if you would rather seek alternative housing arrangements, give yourself plenty of time to weigh the options and make the necessary arrangements. There are three main options available to overseas students: on-campus housing (usually in a dormitory), off-campus housing (renting an apartment, room or house, either alone or with roommates, and host housing (a program where local families house academic students). Choosing one of these housing situations is largely a matter of personal preference, but it's important to remember that the costs of each of these scenarios can be vastly different, so plan wisely! For example, living with a host family is often a fantastic opportunity to further immerse yourself in a country's culture and to learn things about the language and people that may never have been experienced otherwise. On the other hand, students looking for a more independent traveling experience may prefer the anonymity and freedom of renting a sleeping room or apartment (finding roommates is a great way to slash costs, afford nicer accommodations, and make new friends!).
There are more methods today for overseas communication than ever, and they are becoming increasingly simpler and more cost-efficient. However, your needs may differ depending on where you are studying: the communication needs of a student studying art in the westernized city of Florence, Italy will differ greatly from a student on an archaeological dig in a remote part of South America. So do your homework! E-mail and Skype chat (as well as other methods of online web-cam based connection, are widely used, easy to understand, and inexpensive or free, granted you have internet service or a laptop and access to Wi-Fi (internet cafes, coffee shops, hostels and hotels with free Wi-Fi are numerous in most Western European cities, and Universities usually provide complimentary Internet service to students via on-campus computer labs). Also, most cell-phone providers offer international service, even if the charges are usually more expensive. Check with your current company to explore your options. Phone cards can also be purchased at home or abroad, for a certain amount of minutes on a good, old-fashioned pay-phone call. And don't forget the efficiency and nostalgia of Snail Mail: sometimes there's nothing more rewarding than penning out a letter to mom and dad detailing all your adventures, and adding a couple of well-taken pictures (especially if mom's into scrapbooking!). Most importantly, don't neglect proper communication with the citizens/students/professors/host-parents of the country in which you are studying! Customs, etiquette, and even head and hand gestures can differ dramatically from the United States, so be sure to read a reputable guide-book (or two!) that covers culture before making a major faux pas your first day overseas.
Your number one travel priority: procuring a passport (and visa, depending on the country you are visiting) if you don't already have one. A passport is your ticket to entry and re-entry between countries, and with tightened airline and border security these days, essential to your journey even if you're an American simply crossing the border into Canada for a weekend. Passports are good for ten years and will cost you around $85.00, depending on your age and circumstances. Be sure to apply in advance as it can take six weeks or longer to process and receive a passport, however; passports can be expedited and received in around three business days for an extra fee. Your next hurdle: air transportation. Although some study-abroad programs will take care of the flight details for you, all too often it is up to the student to research and purchase their own airline tickets. Two main points to consider when arranging for your own airfare: plan well ahead (especially during peak tourist seasons) and purchase round-trip tickets, even if you're not entirely sure when you will be returning. Besides being far less expensive, proof of round-trip tickets are sometimes required at customs before entry is allowed into the country. Worst-case scenario: paying a small surcharge to change the return date on your round-trip flight. Your final obstacle: land transportation after arriving in your destination. Although subway, rail, and bus travel in foreign cities can seem confusing at first (especially if you are not 100% fluent in the language) they are often more organized than public transportation in the United States. Since study-abroad programs usually mean extended visits, save money by buying longer duration passes for these transportation systems (example: Eurail Passes offer unlimited travel for a specific amount of time, or the London Tube offers unlimited travel by the day, week, or month). Most countries will require the inspection or stamp of your pass or ticket, but be aware that some countries and cities (notoriously the subway systems of Munich, Germany, or busses in certain parts of Italy) operate on the honor system, and being caught violating that system can result in heavy (and often embarrassing) fines. Lastly, a few safety tips: take a few moments at home to learn the basic directional words of the country you are traveling to in case you are lost and need to ask directions (right, left, etc.). And always exercise caution when approached by unfamiliar, unlicensed taxis or jitneys; even if the price seems fantastic, you are better off sticking to the conventional, government-operated modes of transportation. Trust your gut!
Safety abroad is very important: remember, you are essentially traveling alone without the support network you are accustomed to. Always carry your passport with you, and also make at least one copy of your passport to keep either in your place of residence abroad or with a trusted family member back home (preferably both) in the event of theft. Carry an emergency stash of money somewhere unexpected on your person (such as your shoe or bra) in case of pickpockets or theft. When sightseeing, especially at night (and especially if you are female!) it's best to travel in groups of trusted classmates or friends (especially, especially if you are consuming alcohol!). NEVER tell strangers where you are staying; there are many con-artists out there who make a very decent living taking advantage of unsuspecting tourists and out-of-towners. Again, reading a few guidebooks about your country of study can alert you to the potential pitfalls and dangers travelers may succumb to (from child pickpockets to shady sales deals, every part of the world has a criminal side!). Most importantly, don't let fear deter you from exploring or experiencing anything you deem worthwhile or important; incidents like these aren't common if you practice good common-sense and street-smarts.
In most cases, experiencing the local cuisine of a foreign country is an eye-opening and delicious experience. The typical food is likely to be more healthful (locally harvested or slaughtered, and with less chemicals and preservatives) than in the US, and in many areas of the world mealtimes are noticeably different (think ten o'clock dinners in Italy and Spain). Give yourself time to become accustomed to these differences, and give new tastes an adventurous try before dismissing them. However, when traveling in certain third-world or undeveloped countries, or those with unpurified water systems, delightful eating experiences can be uncomfortable or harmful to your health if you don't follow certain simple precautions.
Be sure to thoroughly research your country where you will be studying: immunizations may be required, and certain food protocols followed. For example, you may need to take a course of anti-malaria pills for journeys to jungle climates. In other areas of the world, you must be sure to only drink bottled water. When in doubt, ask trusted locals about the best and most hygienic places to have dinner (that roadside stand in New Delhi, though it looks fabulously authentic, may not be such a good idea). Be aware, though, that mild indigestion and/or diarrhea is par for the course with most travelers in any foreign country, so you may want to have your doctor prescribe you a mild medication before leaving the US.
Although it's a good idea to arrive with a small amount of the local currency when you arrive at your destination, do not carry large amounts of cash on your person while traveling or studying in a foreign country. In the event of a theft, cash is impossible to replace. Traveler's checks, debit cards, and credit cards are much better options. Traveler's checks, though becoming archaic, are still issued by AAA, and are still a favorite among some travelers because they are essentially cash that can be easily reimbursed to you if stolen. AAA also offers a new Travel Money Card, a reloadable debit card-type alternative to paper traveler's checks. If you are studying in a populated area with ample ATMs, a debit card linked to your home or overseas checking account is a safe idea, as they can also be reported stolen, deactivated, and reissued. Credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard, are commonly accepted all over the world for most financial transactions, and it is a good idea to carry one with you in case of an unforeseen financial emergency even if you don't plan on using it. Check with your bank before departing about policies, fees, and debit PIN discrepancies associated with your debit/credit cards to feel more at ease about your finances while away from home. Also, it's a good idea to assess your available funs and keep a weekly budget in mind. Although your study and plane expenses are likely to be paid for ahead of time, remember that all those museum tickets, fabulous meals, and late nights out with friends are going to add up.
This is the journey of a lifetime, so have fun! A decent digital camera and a sturdy journal can provide you with a lifetime of memories. Due to common interests, connecting with other students in your program or field of study is easy, but don't forget to seek out locals that can clue you in to hidden historical gems, obscure eateries, and local hotspots that wouldn't be found in any guidebook! Take advantage of time off from study to explore nearby cities and countries and to make the most of your expensive plane ticket overseas; students are eligible for a variety of discounts on historical sites, museums, national parks and more with an International Student Identity Card. And don't forget the souvenirs for family and friends back home! But don't ruin the fun: avoid excessive drinking (avoid drug use altogether), dangerous areas (especially at night) and withdrawing money in deserted locations to avoid potentially hazardous mishaps.
Thorough research on the country in which you'll be studying is the easiest way to ensure your success, safety, and likelihood of having the time of your life.
Remember, the way you behave abroad is essentially representative of all US citizens to the people of a foreign country, so have fun, but conduct yourself with respect and intelligence!
The links below provide more in-depth information regarding studying abroad, customs and cultures, identification, travel issues and safety, food, and much more:
- Students Abroad: Smart Travel
- Study Abroad Destination Countries
- Passport Information from The US Department of State
- International Student Identity Card (ISIC)
- Safety Abroad First Educational Travel Information (SAFETI)
- Europe Map: Detailed Online Map with All Countries and Cities
- Eurail: Travel Europe by Train
- Travel Adventures: Travel Pictures and Stories from Around the World