Why a Traditional Study Abroad Program Doesn't Work for You & What to Do Instead

by Jennifer Bangoura

Your academic advisor told you it is a must. You’ve read the blog posts about it. You know it will help your resume. You would love the chance to travel and learn at the same time. So, what’s stopping you from studying abroad?

There are a number of reasons that the traditional study abroad program probably doesn’t work for you. Lucky for you, we’ve come up with alternatives of what to do instead. This way you can focus less on missing out on what your friends are doing and more on having a meaningful international experience that broadens your horizons and enriches your ability to relate to the world. 

Zayed University Students

To get you in the right mindset before you start planning your international experience, make a list of what you hope to get out of study abroad. Take some time to think about what study abroad means to you (or what you hope it will mean to you). These exercises will help you narrow down your search and ensure you’re making a choice that’s a best fit for you.

Check out some of the more common reasons why the traditional study abroad program might not seem like it will work for you, and what you could (or should) consider doing instead below:

1. You Don’t Have Enough Time 

If your heavy course load is making you nervous and you don’t think you could handle taking a semester or year off to study abroad, consider a spring break study abroad program or a summer program as an alternative option that won’t keep you away from your primary studies too long. 

Be warned, though, at the end of your spring break or summer program, you’ll likely be saying to yourself that you wish you had stayed longer!

Another option is to consider volunteering abroad. You can give back while gaining invaluable international experience, and spend less time away from your studies, work, and life. Make sure to choose your volunteer abroad program wisely to ensure you are supporting a volunteer trip that is sustainable and genuinely supports the community you’re serving. 

2. You Have A LOT Of Time 

Maybe you’re taking a gap year, or perhaps you’ve thought about the value of study abroad and really want to dive in and spend time a long time traveling. Maybe the time you have available to you doesn’t line up quite right with a study abroad program you’re interested in pursuing. Whatever the reason, if you have a lot of time on your hands, you could consider saving up and buying an around the world ticket. If you’re nervous about being away too long, set a time frame like three to six months and go from there.

Do you think that in 20 years you will look back on traveling around the world as something you regret? I didn’t think so.

Spend some quality time thinking about what you want to get out of your travel experience so you’re sure to make the most of it. Do you want to improve your language skills? Look into learning Spanish in Spain. Do you want to deepen your cross-cultural work experience? Explore options to teach abroad to improve your flexibility and adaptability in the workplace. 

Inside a lecture room

3. You Don’t Have Enough Money

There’s no doubt about it, studying abroad costs money. However, with some planning and special consideration, it doesn’t have to empty your bank account. If you aren’t able to fund your study abroad through loans, consider crowdsourced fundraising through family and friends. There are a number of ways to cut study abroad costs so programs aren’t prohibitively expensive. 

Remember, oftentimes the most expensive part of your study abroad experience (aside from tuition!) is going to be your plane ticket, which costs about the same whether you’re gone for a couple weeks or a couple months. But there are ways to find cheap flights, so don’t make that an excuse!

If the cost of study abroad is something you just can’t swing while you’re in school, look for other ways to expand your international experience by living in an international dorm on campus or living in a more diverse community.

Having an international experience doesn’t mean you have to cross a border! Look for opportunities around you to globalize your life, they’re sure to be there!

4. You Don’t Have The Language Skills 

If moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language and taking college courses makes you nervous, consider going abroad specifically to learn a new language. Learning a new language isn’t only important for the ability to communicate with people in a second language, it also changes the way you see the world.

Start taking a language class now in the language you’re hoping to learn so you have a head start before you arrive. Remember, learning a language (in all of its glorious messiness!) is part of the study abroad experience! Stumbling through it is part of the process. If all else fails, once you arrive wherever you’re going, make friends with kids! They will help you improve your vocabulary and they’re often more patient with language learners than adults.

5. You Took Some Time Off From School

Do you feel awkward about studying abroad with students who are younger than you because you took some time off from school? While you’re sure to meet others your age wherever you choose to study abroad, there are alternatives to spending a semester with juniors in college.

One option to consider is postponing your study abroad experience until after graduation. Instead you could teach English in South Korea or the United Arab Emirates, or nearly anywhere in the world really; doing so will allow you to immerse yourself in the culture and gain invaluable work experience at the same time.

If you’re not ready to teach abroad, you could always go abroad to receive your Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification. There are many options available to receive your certification and then have immediate opportunities to teach abroad after.

University students discussing a project

6. You’ve Done Europe

When you think of study abroad does a European Union capital city come to mind? Are you one of the lucky few who have already visited many (or any!) of the European capitals before finishing college? Maybe you’re not excited to spend a semester studying abroad in France or Germany because you’ve already been there and you’re interested in exploring somewhere else.

Why not consider a more nontraditional location a little further off the beaten path, like South Africa, or even Cameroon? You’re sure to expand your horizons and your study abroad stories will definitely be different than those of your peers if you choose a nontraditional study abroad destination.

Remember, too, that just because you’ve visited a place once or twice doesn’t mean there isn’t more to discover while living there. Visiting Barcelona, London, or Milan for a few days isn’t the same as living there for a few months!

Studying abroad can take on many forms, but it ultimately means putting yourself outside of your comfort zone to learn about cultures different from your own.

Studying abroad means adapting to new situations and experiences, and growing as you learn your limits. Study abroad does not have to fit in the mold of a semester abroad in Europe (or however else you envision the traditional study abroad program).

Just because the traditional semester or year-long study abroad programs don’t work for you, doesn’t mean studying abroad in a different way can’t work for you.