As much of an advocate as I am for traveling, I’m well aware that real life often gets in the way of grand plans. Shortages of time and money can easily push dream trips into the back of your mind, or out of it all together. Vacation time and a busy lifestyle often don’t easily go hand in hand. That said, one time in our lives where fuller schedules and global exploration can come together is during a semester abroad.
I’ve done two. I spent the fall of 2010 in Zermatt, Switzerland during my sophomore year of high school. Later, during the spring of 2016 of my junior year of college, I kissed New York City goodbye and went to live in Paris. I can say without question that those months were some of the most formative and fun of my entire educational career. Here’s my take on why every student should spent at least one semester of school abroad.
“Cultural immersion” is something I’ve written about before, and it came as little surprise to me that it was at the top of my list of reasons to study abroad. In a loose and highly personal definition, I describe cultural immersion as “that feeling where what you’re doing during your travels has real meaning, instead of merely checking activities off of a list.” Choosing a destination based on the educational experience you hope to have is an excellent place to start. When you’re living and learning in a new place, it’s only natural that the connection you forge with it will be deeper than that of the average tourist.
I also can’t stress enough how important of an experience it is to have when you’re young, and still forming foundational understandings of certain aspects of life. As someone who was definitely guilty of this, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the concerns of your immediate universe. Change up that setting, and suddenly you realize that the world is quite a bit bigger (and more interesting) than you could ever imagine. Throw a 15-year-old up on a mountain face or a 22-year-old in a class taught in a different language, and it’s impossible not to feel like you’re where you are for a bigger reason than just to say you’ve been. In Zermatt, my mission was to test my physical and mental limits. In Paris, it was to fully commit myself to the study of a culture and language not my own. Studying abroad has the fantastic power to apply this directive lens to any destination.
Speaking of the learning process, one of the main reasons I had periods of burnout in high school or college was mainly due to the monotony of the whole experience. It’s not to say that I don’t like schedules or routine (because I really do), but months and even years of minimally different rinse-and-repeat class schedules sometimes really put a damper on my desire to learn. As someone who loves to learn, there’s few things worse than the process turning from an adventure into a chore. Let me tell you, changing up the setting can do wonders for most ruts brought on by an onslaught of academia.
Studying abroad is a perfect opportunity to switch either the content of your studies, or supplement them with a new approach to the subject matter. For example, in Switzerland, I was able to take a geology course, something not offered in my high school’s curriculum. In addition, the class took us right to examples of what we were studying. That hands-on approach was completely refreshing, that, and we didn’t exactly have any glaciers on standby in Minnesota. While in Paris, my creative writing professor sent us to a café in the Latin Quarter and told us to take notes on all that we saw, à la the style of the writers we spoke of in class. There is no equivalent replacement for these experiences. I like to call it a kind of dose of reality to the learning process, and it’s something only studying abroad can achieve.
This is a given, but for those studying a language (or planning on starting), living and learning in a place where it’s spoken is the best practice. As a French major who spent a decade studying the language, the semester I spent in Paris was definitely my most productive. All of my courses were conducted in French, and living in the city largely on my own required that I used what I knew to get around. It might not seem like a lot, but the little repetitive experiences of buying groceries, using public transportation, and just being a real resident of a place can dramatically increase your confidence.
The biggest issue I’ve had with my French studies was being afraid to make mistakes when conversing with people. Essentially being forced to speak the language on a daily basis, both in and outside the classroom, did wonders for my speaking ability. I still struggle, but familiar situations no longer give me the anxiety they once did. I completely credit that to the six months I spent in Paris.
Studying abroad increases one’s confidence and adaptability outside of language as well. Navigating life in a new destination requires that you be flexible in order to make the experience as least stressful as possible. You’ll make mistakes and end up in some frustrating or uncomfortable situations (such as screwing up some pronunciation and inadvertently thanking a Frenchman for his nice ass), but learning to take them in stride (and laugh about them later) is all part of the process. When so much new information is being thrown your way, it’s pretty amazing how quickly it’s possible to adopt an easygoing mindset.
In Switzerland, many of our overnight hikes had us staying in some bare bones accommodations, such as a “renovated” barn in the Bernese Highlands. It was crammed, uncomfortable, and had no hot running water. However, I got over it pretty quickly considering the rest I needed for our lengthy hike the next day, and that fact that I was in an incredibly beautiful place. This mindset also came in handy when at the end of the semester, the Zürich airport got snowed in and the only place capable of housing a couple dozen students was a Soviet-era bomb shelter. Instead of seeing it as a massive inconvenience, I was just happy not to be sleeping in the airport. Plus, it’s a fun story to tell at parties!
Studying abroad can also be an excellent opportunity to do more traveling. Choosing a program with built-in excursions or with a flexible schedule can make it easier to add more destinations to your possible to-do list. This is especially easy in Europe where countries are close together and weekend trips really can be done on a slim budget.
While in Paris, I took weekend trips with friends and family to Amsterdam, Venice, Budapest, and Tuscany. On Easy Jet, tickets are often under €50, and we only spent €30 per person per night at Airbnb’s and hostels. If you have a European student ID, that can also get you into many attractions in the E.U. for free, or at reduced prices. Never be afraid to ask. Saving money on museum visits means more money to spend on food and souvenirs! If your program offers built-in trips, take as many of the opportunities as you can. While in Switzerland, I took a weekend biking trip to Gruyère, plus some mountain climbing days. If this is your only opportunity to do a bunch traveling in the forseeable future, make the most of your time. If done right, a large quantity of destinations shouldn’t affect the quality of each visit.
Next to true cultural immersion, the connections you make with the other students in your program are what make the experience so memorable. When you’re all bound by the desire to go live and learn in a specific place, it’s a chance to make some truly unique and meaningful friendships. Often, these connections are the things that make a foreign place start to feel more like a home. My best advice is to just be open, and you’ll make friends pretty quickly.
Suddenly, you’ll find yourself with some of the best travel companions, roommates, confidants, drinking buddies, ping pong partners, classmates, and friends you could ever ask for. You’ll get lost together, explore together, learn together, and most importantly, have fun together.
Finally, there are few excuses not to take a semester abroad. Most colleges encourage it, and have years of experience tailoring programs to fit into the schedules of even the busiest students, and without paying additional tuition. While you may leave behind friends and a routine that you’re comfortable with, the whole point of having this experience is to challenge what you know about the world.
I’d like to conclude with some tips I found helpful during my semesters abroad:
- Start the visa process as early as you can. There’s always red tape, and it takes longer than you think it will. Putting things off until the last minute only causes unnecessary stress.
- Take a language class. Even if you’re an absolute beginner, anything you learn will make getting around easier.
- Meet with an advisor to talk about your class schedule – especially if the program you’re in is fairly rigid. Getting behind just makes things more difficult when you get back.
- Always leave room for souvenirs. You’ll end up buying more than you intend.
- Invest in small duffel bag or backpack you can throw in your checked luggage before you go. It’s perfect for weekend trips when you need to travel light and avoid baggage fees.
- Consider keeping a travel journal to write down notable experiences, names of shops and restaurants, and reflections on the travel experience. I did this faithfully while in Switzerland, and it’s an interesting snapshot of how I was feeling at the time.
- Take a lighter semester if you can. When in Paris, I only took 14 credits worth of classes, and it worked out to where I ended up with four-day weekends. A freer schedule gives you more time to travel, and explore your chosen destination.