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Why Your Study Abroad Experience Will Change the World

Leaving home for weeks, months, and years to study while living halfway around the globe was not necessarily something I pictured myself doing while growing up in my small hometown.  When the opportunity presented itself, I was excited to meet wonderful people, learn about cultures new to me, try delicious foods, and see the big world waiting beyond the borders of everything I had known in my rural northern Michigan experiences.  At that time, I didn’t know how much that first transatlantic flight would totally alter the course of my life and end up impacting thousands of other young people.

The world will change for the better the more it is traveled. More than 330,000 US students choose to study abroad every year (and this number is growing!). In doing so, they are exposed to languages, customs, and cultures that forever change their view of the world and their role in it. Study abroad offers each student a unique lesson in empathy, that when multiplied more than 330,000 times over, results in a generation of young people who truly embody what it means to be a global citizen.

 

Study Abroad Makes You a Better Version of Yourself

Studying abroad, even for a few weeks, is one of the quickest ways to pull yourself out of an environment where most things are familiar and plunk yourself down in the midst of a whole lot of newness, ambiguity, and challenge.  While intentionally choosing to be uncomfortable may have you saying, “no, thanks,” there are a few good reasons why studying abroad is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your future:

  • Self-Discovery by Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone When you get away from being surrounded by what’s comfortable, you give space and openness to discover parts of yourself that you never would have known if you stayed home. Sometimes the perspective of a new cultural context opens your eyes to things you’ve never noticed before.  Growing up, I had always considered myself to be very extroverted: I loved to talk, and I loved being a storyteller and entertaining people. When I moved to Spain, while I spoke Spanish well, I found myself not telling stories as often or speaking up as much in group conversations because I felt a bit intimidated.  At first, this was difficult for me, and I had some moments of intense introspection because I had never really found myself acting that way in group settings. I ended up discovering that I still enjoyed storytelling and chiming in, but the experience of stepping back a bit had given me the opportunity to listen a lot more.  I discovered that I really enjoyed listening to others and that I may have been missing out on the opportunity to listen and learn from others when I jumped in to speak so often. When I moved back to the US, I brought that lesson with me, and I now consider myself to be much more balanced in my approach to group dynamics and communication.
  • Building Empathy Through Exposure It’s really hard to be a great friend, a great child, a great parent, partner, neighbor–a great whatever-you-want-to-be–if you don’t empathize with and understand the humans that surround you.  Living abroad through your study experiences teaches you quickly about the interconnectedness of humanity, and for many students, it also sparks a desire to take action on social injustices that they witness–perhaps in a new light–while abroad. While studying in Spain, a  former student volunteered with a homeless outreach organization and returned to the US to found her own non-profit to empower individuals experiencing homelessness to gain skills training for jobs.
  • Transferable Workplace Skills It’s no secret that employers want to hire people that not only have the skills to do the work itself but also the skills to work together with an ever-diversifying team of colleagues and stakeholders. The Business Standard cites that according to The International Labor Union, 70% of business ventures fail due to cultural differences.  The Economist Intelligence Unit finds that 90% of leading executives from 68 countries believe finding effective cross-cultural personnel is a top management challenge.  One of the best ways to become a top candidate in today’s job market is to develop your abilities in navigating intercultural differences, and studying abroad is a phenomenal way to do so!

But I can’t study abroad because…

You may think study abroad isn’t for you.  And that might be true! But most of the excuses I hear from students who think they can’t study abroad are actually based on things that aren’t true!  Time to do a little myth-busting…

…it’s too expensive!  While there are significant costs to consider for studying abroad, it’s important to note that costs vary depending on which program you choose, which country you go to, and how long you’re abroad.  Sometimes going abroad can actually be cheaper than studying in the US! While studying during a full semester might seem like the pricier option, federal financial aid is usually more easily applied, and bigger costs (like flights) can get you more bang for your buck when you spread those costs over a greater number of days.  There are also some awesome scholarships and grants available, like the Gilman Scholarship, the Boren Awards, the Critical Language Scholarship, and many others!

…I’m afraid I’ll miss out on things here at home!  This is true; you’ll miss out on some great things that are happening at home while you’re abroad.  However, you’ll change and grow in ways you’d never have the opportunity to do at home in your comfort zone.  You should be more afraid of missing out on your future growth and opportunities you’ll gain from study abroad than the mild FOMO you might experience.

…I don’t speak the language!  Many programs offer courses entirely taught in English, and some offer opportunities to take local language classes at many levels.  If you don’t yet speak a language other than English, you could also consider programs in countries where English is widely spoken, or even do a study abroad experience in the US, Canada, or US Territories!

…people like me don’t study abroad!  The diversity of students taking advantage of study abroad experiences is increasing each year!  More than ever, students with disabilities and differing abilities are going abroad, and the numbers of first-gen, LGBTQ+, and racial and ethnic minority students studying abroad grow each year.  While there are considerations to be made for how your identities may factor into your choice of program, know that there are resources and many ways for you to receive support to study abroad.

 

Finding the Right Fit

Now that you’re excited about studying abroad, it’s important to choose your program carefully.  When selecting a program that’s a good fit for you, make sure you consider the following:

Location: does the location help meet your goals?  If you’re seeking to learn a language, where can you best accomplish that?  Would you prefer to be in a big city, a small town, or a rural environment?  How accessible is the location for you? What kind of cultural differences and similarities might you find there?

Your goals:  As you consider what you’d like to get out of your time abroad, do you have specific academic, professional, or personal goals?  What classes do you need to take? What skills do you need to learn? What places would like to see and experience?

Cost:  Cost is largely dependent on many factors.  Make sure you consider the cost of living while in the country. (Try comparing budgets for living a week in Oslo, Norway vs. a week in Bangkok, Thailand!)  How much are flights to that country? Are there extra tuition costs or program fees? What scholarships are available for that program or location?

Timing: How long will you be gone?  Do you have other commitments to factor in such as work, athletics, internships, family events, etc?  What is the climate like in that location during various times of the year? Do you need certain classes on campus that are only offered certain semesters?

Your identities: Each of us has multiple intersecting identities that include race and ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, language, body size, abilities, etc.  How are your identities are viewed or interpreted in the place you’re going? Where do you have or lack privilege in your home culture? Do these shift culturally in the places you are studying in?  What preparations or questions need to be addressed before you go abroad? For more information on these questions, visit Global U. Michigan and use the category headings in the left side-bar. 

 

Studying abroad transformed me so much that I now work to help nearly 1,000 young adults do the same each year, and I’ve dedicated my professional life to making these opportunities accessible to as many people as possible.  If you’re looking to leave your mark on the world, I enthusiastically proclaim that studying abroad is one of the most impactful, most challenging, and most rewarding ways to do so!

Studying abroad teaches us how much we are all the same, no matter where we were born, what language we speak, what our profession is: love looks nearly the same the world around, and our core human struggles are not bound by national borders.  In our differences, we can learn to skillfully and lovingly navigate the cultural distinctions that do make us unique. Studying abroad changes us in a way that can foundationally alter how we interact with the world and how we spend the limited years of life we have on this earth. These lessons are at the heart of being a world-changer.  So go forth, my friends, and study abroad because the world needs you.


About the Author: Katie Wiggins-Gawlik:

Katie Wiggins-Gawlik is HOBY Michigan 2004 alumna and serves as a Global Education Advisor and Interim Short-Term Programs Manager at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.  Katie graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish for secondary education from Cornerstone University and a master’s degree in Counseling for Student Development Administration from Indiana Wesleyan University. She’s a local in Michigan, New Jersey, and Spain, and she loves spending time with her partner and their Australian Shepherd, cooking and baking, listening to podcasts, playing the ukulele, and (of course) HOBY!