Photo: Thompson Rivers University
I’ve been working in the field of education abroad for the past seven years, most recently as a study abroad advisor for a large public research institution. We send about 1,600 undergraduates abroad a year, with around 60% of those students going in the summer.
The short-term experience is a phenomenon common and unique to the United States, and one of the biggest challenges in getting students to go abroad for longer durations is that pernicious “Fear of Missing out.” These are some of the most common excuses students give me.
1. “Studying abroad isn’t important for my future career.”
The most outlandish excuse of them all. The likelihood that someone would never encounter a person from a foreign country in their field of work is low. Studying abroad helps students develop skills like cross-cultural communication, tolerance, and independence that will be helpful in any future career.
2. “I love it here so much.”
Many students think college can’t possibly get any better, so there’s no point in leaving. I then explain about my time studying in Valencia, Spain, and going to the Fallas Festival in March. This four-night street party honors St. Joseph and is celebrated with fireworks, glittering displays of lights, and intricately detailed statues made of Styrofoam that are burned in the middle of each falla (neighborhood). The festival gave me an authentic, in-depth perspective of a Valenciano cultural tradition, something I will always remember.
3. “I’m afraid I’ll miss an opportunity here.”
We’re always missing out on something. Students studying abroad in the summer miss the chance to have three months of summer break without reading and papers, or working to save money. I missed my last semester of high school by studying abroad in Costa Rica.
But in return, I studied Spanish for a month, followed by a month of volunteering with exotic birds. I don’t know anyone else who had that opportunity in high school, and I’m pretty sure nothing “new” happened in that final semester that I didn’t experience any other time.
4. “I can’t afford to study abroad.”
There’s a study abroad program for every budget; it takes careful planning, and not waiting till the last minute to find scholarships or other sources of funding. Costs will also depend on the program model. At my former university, if a student studies on an exchange, they pay their normal tuition and fees. Students need to have all the right information before deciding they can’t afford the experience.
5. “I’ll fall behind in my degree requirements.”
Institutions handle this in a variety of ways, but credits from study abroad generally will count toward degree requirements in some way. Study abroad advising is shifting from a destination-centered to an academic-centered focus, and studying abroad in any major is entirely possible.
If students are afraid of falling behind in classes, I wouldn’t worry; they’ll come back with a new and different type of knowledge, and may even be more creative than their peers.
6. “I’m an engineering (or STEM) student, so I can’t go abroad.”
This is 100% not true. Studying abroad is extremely relevant for engineers, who may end up working for a multinational corporation, or with individuals from other countries. There are a growing number of STEM-specific study abroad programs, but it’s more common to directly enroll at a foreign institution and take engineering or science courses.
It may take extra planning, but being in the STEM fields doesn’t prohibit a student from studying abroad.
7. “I don’t speak a foreign language.”
I’m a firm believer that everyone should speak more than one language, and I envy those who are bilingual and beyond. This is an area in which the US is lacking, but there’s one big advantage to speaking English — many institutions around the world teach in English to attract international students. If a student wants to go to Sweden and study physics, they can! Better yet, students can always study abroad to learn a foreign language.
8. “I need to get an internship.”
Depending on what skills a student wants to develop, studying abroad can be as developmentally rewarding as getting an internship. Gaining practical work experience is important, though, which is why many programs and institutions offer internship options (often for credit). These opportunities allow students to develop workplace skills in a foreign environment, which employers value highly.
9. “I’ll have time to travel after I graduate from college.”
Maybe this is true, but the opportunity to live abroad for an extended period of time is less likely to present itself once students leave college and enter the workforce. Studying abroad immerses students in a new culture, giving them a more transformational life experience.
10. “I won’t know anyone abroad.”
Going abroad pushes you beyond your comfort zone. Some students may have a fear of the unknown, have not been abroad before, or have never lived far from home. Studying abroad can seem daunting, but it’s just like going to college for the first time — you’ll meet people and make friends. Plus, there’s always Skype for calling home.