Studying Abroad Doesn’t Have to Slow Progress, Break Bank
SONGKHLA, Thailand — With less than 10 minutes until the last train departed Bangkok for the south of Thailand, all I could do was say a little prayer.
My mother and I were stuck in traffic several blocks from Bangkok’s famous Hua Lamphong train station. It would take a near-miracle to make our scheduled departure.
Fortunately for us, the kindness of the Thai people intervened. Observing our sense of urgency upon arrival at the station, a Thai teenager ran over to help us with our suitcases and a platform attendant waived us through without requiring the regular entry fee. Then, two helpful police officers grabbed our bags, ran alongside the train with us and madly signaled the conductor to stop.
When the train hit the breaks and we finally climbed onboard, all of our new Thai friends congratulated us and exchanged broad smiles.
There’s something truly wonderful about spending time overseas that just can’t be captured in books, on television or over the Internet. Not only do we gain valuable insight into foreign customs and traditions, but also by understanding how others live around the world, we develop a greater appreciation for what defines our own culture.
And while a two-week trip like my current one to Thailand is certainly a lot of fun, there is one unique travel opportunity I wish I had pursued while still in college: the chance to study abroad.
These days, only about 4 percent of college undergraduates pursue a study-abroad program. Given this low level of international exposure, it might be no coincidence that, according to a recent survey by the National Geographic Society, six out of 10 people between ages 18 and 24 can’t locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East.
For the vast majority of college students who never venture overseas, many may believe one or more of the following three myths:
Myth No. 1: Study abroad is only for students with strong foreign language skills.
Actually, there are many study-abroad programs designed for those with no previous foreign-language experience. To get you up to speed fast, such programs often provide intensive language classes at the beginning of your stay abroad. In fact, if you have struggled with foreign languages, spending some time overseas immersed in the language and culture may be the linguistic jump-start you need.
Myth No. 2: I don’t have the funds to study abroad.
Many students are surprised to discover that their existing financial-aid packages from their home colleges in the U.S. are largely transferable while studying abroad. At many U.S. colleges, it’s necessary to be enrolled in a study-abroad program that will award academic credit towards your eventual degree.
Additionally, a wide variety of scholarships, fellowships and grants are available from individual schools, foundations, corporations and study-abroad programs. Depending on where you plan on studying, you might find the tuition and overall cost of living at your overseas school is substantially less than what you are used to paying in the U.S.
Myth No. 3: I’ll be too far behind when I return to my home campus.
If you double-check in advance that the academic credits you earn abroad will definitely transfer, you won’t need to worry about slowing down your academic progress. Furthermore, although longer programs allow deeper cultural and language immersion, a variety of excellent shorter-term programs exist for a single semester, summer break, the so-called “January term” or other periods of less than eight weeks.
Once you have moved beyond these myths, the next step is to research potential opportunities. Check in with the study-abroad office at your college (or future college) to investigate the specific programs your school offers directly. You should also search online study-abroad databases like the ones at www.iiepassport.org and www.studyabroaddirectory.com.
Independent companies offering popular study-abroad programs include AIFS (www.aifsabroad.com), IES (www.iesabroad.com) and CEA (www.gowithcea.com).
For the rest of us who never quite made it abroad as a student, it is, of course, never too late to partake in some global adventures. After my Internet connection went out late at night in my hotel overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, I quickly scrambled to an Internet café several miles away on the back of a motorcycle offered by a hotel employee.
As I now sit in this café among a couple of dozen Thai video game enthusiasts, I am typing these final paragraphs on my laptop computer so I can make my submission deadline. And, as you might have guessed, I have been smiling all the way.
- City of College Dreams: