Study Abroad: School For Travelers
--By Elizabeth Ellsworth, Ph.D.
© 2000, RPK&A, Inc.
"I would really like to take a semester abroad but am unsure when to do it. Is it better to wait until my last year of school to make sure I get the most out of the academic aspects of the trip, or to go earlier to break up the monotony of 4+ continuous years of school?"
Traditionally, study abroad programs have been known as "junior year abroad." The idea was that in your junior year, you'd be far enough along in your major to have some kind of focus, and that your year or semester abroad would enrich that focus (not to mention your life). The idea also was that you'd be back in residence at your own school for your senior year, focusing even more closely on those important "capstone" courses in your major.
But in the last few years, many colleges and universities have become more flexible. Many study-abroad programs now make it possible for you to spend part or all of your senior year abroad and still fulfill residency requirements at your own school. In fact, some programs allow you to graduate abroad. And there are now programs aimed at sophomores as well.
If you have an office that coordinates study-abroad programs on your campus, it can help you to figure out which programs fulfill requirements in your major and to calculate course equivalencies. It may offer videos of the countries and the programs you'd be choosing from. And it may be able to put you in contact with other students who have participated in study-abroad programs, or with staff who administer the programs abroad. You might even be able to read student evaluations of the programs, and you can also find out which programs require proficiency in languages other than English.
Many colleges and universities offer scholarships to help pay for your travels. And if you're already receiving financial aid to go to school, it's possible that your aid will apply to your study abroad as well.
If you're at a college or university with no study-abroad programs, there are a lot of independent programs that you can consider. And many colleges invite non-students to take part in their own programs. The University of Wisconsin's Office of International Studies and Programs, for example, lists over a dozen programs in all parts of the world that are open to non-UW students (http://www.wisc.edu/studyabroad/nonuw.html). You'll have to do the negotiating with your department about course equivalencies and residence credit--but it'll probably be worth it.
I didn't study abroad when I was in college. But a couple of years before getting tenure, I spent part of the summer studying in a program at the University of London that was affiliated with my department. It was my first trip to Great Britain, and going as a student was the best. I stayed in a dorm ($35/night, English breakfast included) that was located a good walk from the British Museum. My classmates gave me an instant set of familiar faces in an otherwise unfamiliar place, and new friends to explore the city with when I wanted company. Having student status also gave me a place where I belonged, and people I could ask for advice about living in and exploring London.
And besides just having a great time, the "academic aspects" of the trip were profound and lasting. I saw my whole field of study from a very different perspective that shook up some of my settled ways of thinking. I had studied British approaches to media education from afar. Actually meeting some of the people I had studied, and being immersed in the cultural sensibilities that shaped their work, gave me a full-body feeling for how and why they thought the ways they did.
Maybe that's what I ended up valuing the most about studying abroad. When I travel, I'm in my whole body in a way that I can forget to be when I'm in my everyday life. And studying and learning from my whole body, instead of just from my neck up, leaves intellectual and emotional impressions that don't disappear the minute I take the final exam.