What I Wish I'd Known Before My Faculty-Led Study Abroad Experience

by Elizabeth Standaert

In the world of study abroad, there are a lot of program choices. Whether choosing between a school sponsored program or a third party provider’s program, or decided on a full academic year, semester, summer, or J-term program, the options for study abroad go on and on. Sometimes you will have the option of going on a faculty-led study abroad experience, which are often part of a degree program from your university. These programs typically involve a classroom component and an overseas component and are offered over a short term, such as summer or J-term.

Person holding an open book
Pre-departure takes a lot of prep with extra classes and lots of required reading.

A faculty-led program can be a great way to get direct credit toward your degree. As with any type of program option there lessons to be learned from people have traveled that path before you. So, here are my top observations and pointers for you when participating in a faculty-led study abroad program:

1. A lot of work goes into the class before you even travel abroad.

My faculty-led experience that led me to Tanzania for two weeks over the summer started with three weeks of classes twice a week and each class was about three hours long. There was a lot of reading and writing to be done, in addition to the typical preparations for a trip abroad. At times, it was overwhelming! It's important to remember to find find some balance between the current coursework and trip preparations.

2. Be diligent about keeping a journal everyday, and take notes as needed.

We were required to keep a daily journal of our experiences. Most days I finished the daily writing in my journal, but then there were days that were so long that writing in a journal at the end of the day was just not as enticing as going to sleep.

Journal and fountain pen
Be diligent about keeping a journal; you won’t regret it.

Try to find a way to chronicle your thoughts about various events throughout the day rather than saving it all for the end of the day (or days after). For example, carry a smaller binder or notebook, dedicated solely to this experience, where you can quickly jot down reactions to various speakers or site visits throughout the day. Take advantage of car trips between sites to record a thought or two. Then, at the end of the day, combine all of those thoughts into one cohesive journal entry. You may also want to think about whether you want to physically write your journal entries or type them on a laptop or iPad (or maybe even create your own blog!).

3. Brainstorm ideas for your final paper before you arrive.

It can be tough to think about a big final paper in the initial weeks of a class, especially when you're likely writing other papers and preparing for an overseas trip. The challenges only increase as you're abroad, as there is so much going on and you'll want to drink it all in (and not think about silly things like grades and homework).

However, I challenge you to establish a “hunch,” an “inkling,” or better yet, a full-on topic for your faculty-led study abroad course final paper as early on as possible, ideally before you travel. Think about what interests you most about the subject matter you are studying and the culture you are learning about. This should be your overall idea for your final paper.

Two people on laptops brainstorming and taking notes
Take time to brainstorm topics for your final paper BEFORE you even get on the plane to depart.

Throughout your experience, be thinking about that topic and take opportunities to ask questions about it. It will help you once you are home if you’ve already jotted down a ton of relevant information, regardless if it’s fact-based from a speaker, site visit, or documentation of your own reactions to what you're experiencing. Also, note any questions that come up. You may find opportunities throughout your experience to ask someone about it or explore it when you're researching at home after your experience.

4. Take the time to learn about your group members and lean on them for support.

Group dynamics are a huge part of any study abroad experience. I'm so glad I went to Tanzania with the people I went with. I had the privilege of knowing many of the group members from other classes, but there were a few students who were not from our core program too. Through group work before we left, we got to know all of our group members and were also intentional about sharing information with each other beforehand. Throughout our trip we looked out for one another and worked together as a team. In these situations, it's good to learn about each person's unique strengths, and it is also nice to have a group of people to experience things and make memories with.

Silhouette of travelers at sunset
Get to know your fellow participants before leaving the country together.

5. Network with your classmates when it comes to packing.

Now, I'm not talking about things like clothes or other really personal items! But if you know who you will be sharing a room with, you could coordinate things like the hair dryer and other odds and ends. Amongst your group it may be helpful for someone to be the designated “health person.” In my experience, this person brought a good stock of basic medicine, ointment, and band aids for the group. This meant that, unless you had personal medication or your individual supply of anti-malaria medicine (if that applies to your destination or wanted to bring your own supplies), you could go to this designated person for basic medical needs.

Beyond cutting down on the amount of stuff you each have in your suitcase by sharing the load, it can be nice to bounce ideas off each other as to what is a good idea to bring. Just as you should be leaning on your classmates for support, you should also be learning from them and their experiences.

6. You'll want to have a way to share photos with the rest of your group.

Everyone will be taking photos of various elements of your trip. It will help if you establish a way to share photos with each other early on. Think about making a group account on a photo sharing website that everyone can upload their photos to. This could also allow people to access photos in order to create a more comprehensive photo book of the experience. Someone who is gifted in photography may want to create a video montage of your experience for the group too.

Travel items to be packed
Coordinate packing with group members to help shoulder some of the weight, literally.

Faculty-led study abroad programs are not just for language or cultural studies majors. Faculty in more and more departments are seeing the value in incorporating a global studies component to their programs. After all, professions of all kinds are being impacted by the globally connected society we live in.

Participating in a faculty-led study abroad program can enhance your understanding of the global affairs in your field of study which can further enhance your career. It will also give you new opportunities to grow as a person. So, explore your study abroad options and see if there is a faculty-led program that you can participate in!