5 Ways Successful Students Spend Their Time Out of Class While Earning a Master’s Degree Abroad

by Joe Baur

We all know there’s more to studying abroad as a graduate student than simply spending time in the classroom. Just as successful students at home find ways to broaden their horizons through athletics, model United Nations, and a plethora of additional extracurricular activities, so too do those who have made the decision to earn their degree abroad.

However, the perks of earning a degree abroad cannot be realized solely by living and studying in an international context. It takes effort, intentionality, and a bit of strategy to really take advantage of the opportunity at hand.

The potential to expand your skillset and knowledge multiplies exponentially in an international environment.

But what exactly can you do? What can you sign up for that will leave a marked impact on not just your educational background, but your life as a whole? What actions can you take now that will most benefit your long term academic, career, and personal development goals?

Learning new language with the locals

Luckily, there are no shortage of outlets to maximize your time outside the classroom while obtaining a master’s degree abroad. Here are a few ways outstanding students amplify their time while completing graduate degree programs abroad:

1. Mastering the language of the locals.

Learning a new language is perhaps the most obvious way successful students spend their time out of class, especially for those studying in a non-Anglophone country. Though it certainly remains a viable option even if you are studying in a country where you do speak the language.

Considering the English language’s dominance in international circles, it’s as easy as ever to find a master’s program abroad taught entirely in English, even if it’s not an official language of the resident country. I, for example, studied at the United Nations-mandated University For Peace in Costa Rica, a Spanish-speaking country, in a program taught in English. I certainly could have spent my time abroad exclusively speaking English, but I knew that wasn’t an option if I wanted to truly make the most of my time abroad.

Ultimately, learning Spanish became an indispensable asset. In retrospect, Spanish in and of itself was a prerequisite to finding success in some of my most important hours spent outside the classroom. Traveling to El Salvador, for instance, required a confident level of Spanish in order to get around (something I’ll touch on more later).

Besides, having selected an international university for my master’s program, I was surrounded by students from around the world. Spanish was, without question, the second-most spoken language, but there was ultimately everything from Portuguese and French to Japanese and Hindi available within the student body. While my focus was on improving my Spanish, this time abroad taught me the true importance of being able to converse in as many languages as possible if I wanted to remain in an international environment throughout my career. While a master’s degree earned abroad will make you more attractive to prospective employers, an ability to communicate in multiple languages will increase your viability for employment even more so.

Explore the history of the country

2. Taking advantage of the program location.

Wherever you go for your master’s degree program abroad, there will be something inherently special and unique about the location. When I was earning my degree in Costa Rica, I was in a mecca of biodiversity for anyone and everyone who was studying in the environmental department. For those earning a degree in human rights, we had an international court right in San José. For myself in media, I had the unique opportunity to explore Spanish-speaking, Central American media that I had never seen before.

Successful international students working at a graduate level take advantage of their program location to strengthen their dissertations or expertise in their chosen field, and they don’t confine these efforts to the classroom.

While earning a master’s degree abroad, you will be exposed to a number of professors and faculty members who have a wealth of experience; they might even be one of the most influential and well-respected thought-leaders of your industry. Successful graduate students will actively cultivate relationships with important people in their field of study who live/work in the area. Conscious and intentional networking, as well as involvement in internship and job fairs hosted by your international university, can lead to strategic post-graduate work (or further study) opportunities.

3. Becoming actively involved in the new community.

It’s easy to fall into a routine of only socializing with your new classmates when studying abroad. They're the ones you're surrounded by from day one and the ones you become most familiar with; it's no wonder you develop a sense of ease and security around them. You’ve already forced yourself to a new country, so throwing yourself into a new community (on top of those in your master’s program) may seem like extra work that you don’t have the time (or the energy) for. 

Truth is, it might be more work, but like any good work, it’s work worth doing. You can read all the books and see all the films about a region you can possibly devour, but there’s simply no substitute for best understanding a region than by participating in it. This can mean volunteering or even just making an effort to go to the local festival with your landlords. When people ask about living in Costa Rica, I don’t refer to books I’ve read or exclusively the places I traveled, but often the conversations I had with Costa Ricans themselves.

Education can only get you so far in your academic development. A master’s degree is increasingly important in the United States, but the value of life experiences can never be understated. Naturally, the life experiences of someone living near your university, whether it’s a foreign country or different city, will vary drastically and contribute to your development in a way simple academics cannot.

4. Reviewing the history of the region.

If you’re reading this, chances are you come from a North American or European background. It goes without saying that these respective nations have had a profound impact on the globe historically, politically and economically. More often than not, their impact has had negative implications that are often well-understood by those who live under the ramifications, but not by those who live alongside the beneficiaries.

Case in point: many Salvadorans are aware of the U.S. involvement in their bloody Civil War, but the same can’t be said for the average American. So, if you’re going to benefit from the educational resources you have access to abroad, the least you can do is to study up on the regional history and act accordingly.

Ultimately a better understanding of your host country or location will better inform your interactions with locals as well as your development with your fellow classmates, who are also experiencing the same environment for the first time alongside you.

Travel and enjoy the sceneries of the place

5. Traveling!

Surely this is a bit of a no-brainer. Who makes the effort to go abroad to earn a degree with no intention to follow through with travels throughout the region?

Having studied in Costa Rica, travel was an obvious way to spend time outside of the classroom being a tourism juggernaut on the global stage. But travel should be at the forefront of your mind regardless of where you’re earning your degree abroad. In fact, having the benefit of time, you research and specifically seek out those destinations that see comparatively fewer travelers. That’s precisely what brought me to El Salvador, a country with a fledgling tourism industry compared to Costa Rica.

Given its stable reputation and safety vouching from friends who had previously traveled there, I admittedly would have stuck to Costa Rica had I only one shot to travel to Central America. But, living in Costa Rica gave me time to settle, and forced me to explore the surrounding region. When an opportunity to travel to El Salvador came up, it was an obvious decision despite discouraging family and friends who warned against it (you know, from those who had never been there themselves, of course). That week in El Salvador has since become one of the most important travel experiences in my life.

As Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt once said, "The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” Having the courage to visit places off the beaten path taught me not to dismiss entire corners of the globe because of X, Y, or Z excuses, be it unfavorable media coverage or a lack of, but to rather view it for myself.

GoAbroad features a number opportunities for you to get a master’s degree abroad as well as study abroad in countries that might be off the typical traveler’s radar. Take your time to think about what language and foreign experiences will benefit you the most in your master’s degree program and future career of interests.