I didn't study abroad in college. Did I miss my chance?

by James Bridge

In two words: absolutely not!

“Study abroad” is a well-known concept to many college students and their families. An increasing number of U.S. students are going abroad for academic credit during their college years, more than 300,000 at last count, which represents a 35 percent uptick over the past decade. While this is great news, the reality is that it represents only one-tenth of all American college students. One-tenth. That means the vast majority of U.S. students aren’t getting the opportunity to study abroad, for reasons ranging from prohibitive costs to academic coursework restrictions to straight-up FOMO.

Young man sitting in booth using a laptop
The all-nighters and college parties are finally over, but you still have one regret: you didn’t study abroad.

Whatever the reason, many graduates who weren’t able to study overseas while in undergrad might now be wondering: “Did I miss my chance to go abroad now that college is over??”

The answer is: absolutely not!

The great news is that there are many opportunities for traveling after college that don’t involve the word “study.” These opportunities might not have a good catch-all phrase that most everyone recognizes, like “study abroad,” but that doesn’t make the experiences on offer any less powerful. For example, words like “work abroad,” “intern abroad,” and “volunteer abroad” aren’t really household terms, and “non-credit experiential program abroad” is probably a bit of a head scratcher for most. And though these terms don’t necessarily conjure a specific type of adventure or experience like “study abroad” might, they are still viable options for 20-somethings still hoping to adventure abroad in a meaningful way.

In fact, there is a vast set of international opportunities out there for any student seeking a post-college abroad experience. These programs provide the same kinds of real-world experiences and skills development opportunities that study abroad programs are touted for, and perhaps even more so, given that they typically involve a hands-on responsibility to a community, family, or organization.

So what kinds of “non-credit experiential programs abroad” are out there? Here are a few of my favorites: 

Woman taking a photo of a busy street with her cell phone
While you might not be “studying” abroad per se, you can still travel in meaningful ways after college.

Au Pair Abroad

The au pair tradition hasn’t caught on in every culture, such as with young Americans, like it has with other nationalities around the world, especially young Europeans. Even so, thousands of young adults embark on au pair adventures abroad every year. For those who like the idea of host-family-living and who have that special personality to be an inspiring presence in the lives of children, an au pair program could be the perfect opportunity. While there are a few self-matching au pair websites out there, working with an organization with expertise in the industry can take a lot of the stress out of the process. These organizations (like InterExchange) can help match you with a family, arrange your visa, get you enrolled in language courses if required (or desired), and provide you with support, logistics, and opportunities to meet other au pairs. 

Teach English Abroad

Teaching English abroad is sometimes viewed as something “anyone can do” just because they speak the language. While it’s true that speaking fluent English is a key prerequisite, actually teaching the language is a whole different ballgame, a task that can be extremely challenging and equally rewarding.

Teaching English abroad could be a great fit for travelers with the right kind of motivation (and patience), as well as the right related experience. Qualifications like a Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification and a bachelor’s degree may be required, but this will depend on the country and the program.

As world economies vary widely, your paycheck may or may not allow you to stash extra money or simply cover the bills back home. But in most cases, teaching abroad does afford a traveler the ability to cover their in-country costs at minimum. 

Group of hikers backpacking through the mountains
Consider taking a working holiday by grabbing seasonal gigs and backpacking your way through a foreign country.

Volunteer Abroad

Third party volunteering organizations can serve as important liaisons between volunteers and the initiatives they support, whether that be teaching, healthcare, conservation, or other fields. One of the most important functions of a third party organization can be to help manage the expectations of a prospective volunteer, so that volunteers better understand why the initiative matters, what they can or cannot expect to do, and how to stay safe and travel responsibly.

There is a certain amount of healthy skepticism surrounding the idea of “voluntourism,” as well as commentary on how volunteering abroad can be done ethically. It’s easy to make a mistake in unfamiliar territory and step on someone’s toes, providing more trouble than service. For example, before signing up, volunteers should ensure that the program is designed to truly benefit the host people and community. A responsible volunteer abroad experience should emphasize learning about an effort and its stakeholders first (which sometimes demands more time than a traveler can commit). It is not enough to possess a sense of adventure and good intentions (though these are great things, too).

By taking ample time to learn from the communities they hope to support, volunteers can develop a more genuine connection, and help out in ways that are informed by that community. 
Man looking out over green hills
Your ability to see the world doesn’t go away as soon as you have that diploma.

Working Holidays

Some American young professionals aren’t aware of working holiday visa opportunities to spend up to a year traveling open-endedly in another country, with the ability to take on seasonal jobs as you go. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland have special visa categories allowing for these kind of working holiday experiences. While it’s possible to simply get the visa and go, going with a vetted organizations can offer guidance with the transition into the country, as well as job search support. 

Another popular working holiday option is WWOOFing. A tradition since 1971, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOFing) connects independent travelers with organic farming families around the world. Travelers typically help out on the farm for about four to six hours per day in exchange for a room and meals. Usually for around $50, you can obtain WWOOF membership for a specific country or region, including access to listings of participating farmers. In the end, it’s up to the traveler to connect with specific farms and ask the right questions (i.e. What’s the living situation like? Have you hosted before? What kind of work are you looking for?).

Language Schools

If you really have your heart set on being a “student” abroad, even if you’re not technically “studying abroad” through a university program, is to consider tackling a foreign language. There’s no place better to learn a second tongue than in a country where it is spoken natively, and a number of language schools exist specifically to immerse students into a new language abroad.

Silhouettes of graduates throwing their caps into the air
College may be over, but your sense of adventure is still going strong.

Spending four to six hours daily thinking, reading, writing, and speaking in your target language will do wonders for your fluency and proficiency. Having teachers who speak the language natively improves your capacity to understand cadence, intonation, and daily conversational norms. In short, it’s a win-win, and a great option for students who still want to study abroad after college, especially those who want to learn Spanish abroad.

While these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg, the point is that you didn’t miss the boat! There are plenty of post-college opportunities for embarking on your own international journey-with-a-purpose. Good luck and get started!

This article was contributed by InterExchange, a nonprofit organization that has provided work and volunteer exchange programs abroad for more than 40 years.