Some people view studying abroad as a time to skip class and take a perpetual vacation. This notion stems partially from the fact that most study abroad programs offer students a significant amount of free time. While free time can quickly turn into wasted time, it doesn’t have to. Study abroad students are granted freedom from their everyday responsibilities and expectations back home. They are given a gift: the opportunity to think critically and deeply about their values, sense of identity, and life goals (not to be confused with squad goals).
When you find out more about yourself, you realize what kind of work moves you.
You suddenly realize what subjects, topics, people, places, and labor catch your attention. These may eventually translate into a career path, but that’s not necessarily the ultimate goal. While studying abroad is a resume beautifier, there’s more to life than a fancy business title or paycheck.
Don’t be intimidated by the thought of taking off for a semester or a year to move to a completely different country. Why do you think so many people give up a semester at their cozy colleges and jump on an airplane to study in Brazil or Japan? Because studying abroad is the best way to answer the question: What should I do with my life?
Studying abroad gives you the opportunity to grow in so many different ways, but it is ultimately up to you to see each day as an opportunity. You must take initiative and be proactive in ways that you wouldn’t have had to be in your home country. This can-do attitude will stay with you forever and challenge you to grow in profound ways. No one can tell you how you will grow but yourself.
Figuring out what you should do with your life isn’t that scary. Just study abroad for an easy fix! After all, studying abroad forces you to:
1. Readjust your expectations.
Experienced travelers have learned that it's best to enter new experiences with an open mind. Only one expectation matters: expect things to be different. You cannot compare your university experience at home to your study abroad experience. If you do, you may end up being disappointed about what is different. Learn to not only embrace differences, but also learn from them. Realize that things aren't weird, or better or worse, but instead just different. Having an open, adaptable attitude will help you realize that you can tackle any challenge that comes your way. Studying abroad in a completely different setting (and a different language) will empower you with the adaptable mindset that will serve you well throughout life, personally and professionally.
2. See if life abroad is for you.
Some people enjoy their study abroad experiences and come home with stories. Others come home and realize they want to join the foreign service. If you’re even a little curious of your abilities to over homesickness once and for all by having a permanent foreign address, why not test the waters with your study abroad program?
Very, very few people regret studying abroad. Who knows, maybe you’ll realize working abroad is for you. Maybe you want to travel more or be a travel blogger, writer, and you realize homesickness isn’t so bad.
3. Explore the possibility of a future in another language.
Studying a language abroad will influence your future career decisions. Maybe you want to be the ambassador to Spain one day, but you have only taken one year of Spanish. So, you use your entire semester or year abroad to catch up on the Spanish proficiency you will need to achieve that career goal. By the end of your semester studying Spanish abroad, you will be an even more fluent Spanish speaker, and you will have learned different expressions that you'll remember forever.
What if you've never taken a Spanish class and you're more interested in furthering your studies more than acquiring a language? You can still take courses in Spain taught in English.
Tackling a language abroad may not be your gift and you may want to pursue it further. Figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as valuable as figuring out what you do want to do. You will have still excelled academically in a different environment, which will look great to employers.
4. Meet admirable people and network.
Sometimes we don’t even know what paths are out there that we can pursue. We’ve been force-fed the doctor, lawyer, police officer jobs. But what does a “businessman” or a “social worker” actually do in their day-to-day career?
Forge friendships with people who look at the world differently than your circles back home do. Having an international network that reminds you that the graduate+job+marriage+house+baby formula isn't the ONLY way to live life is really beneficial to keeping you in check.
While studying abroad, you’ll meet a bunch of inspirational people doing really neat things. The fuzzy-grey of your future options may start to look more clear. You’ll make meaningful relationships with the people you connect with, and share your interests with others. Who knows, maybe you’ll secure a future internship in a field or job role you didn’t even know existed before!
5. Step straight out of your comfort zone...
Think about your comfortable, cozy, familiar academic bubble. You go to class. You grab Starbucks on the way. You walk on sidewalks. You visit your professor during office hours. Your grades are communicated easily and frequently. You have toilet paper readily available in the loo. Studying abroad is going to be a crash course in recognizing the scholastic amenities you take for granted.
The bright side? This insight will ultimately renew and invigorate your investment in your academic career. It will make you a more proactive student, but a more selectively proactive one, too. You’ll be able to discern where in your college life you want to invest extra time and effort, and say “Bye Bye” to the areas that are otherwise fruitless.
6. ...and not just at school, either.
Food, transportation, sounds, music, attitudes, people's expressions. It will all be different. It’s likely you’ll experience culture shock as you adjust to life abroad. While it sounds slightly horrifying, culture shock is actually good for you. It’s a completely normal process that happens to every traveler.
In fact, it is beneficial. In a survey of over 3,000 exchange students over 50 years, around 98 percent of them agreed that culture shock actually helped them better understand their own culture and biases. Culture shock increases confidence (after all, surviving life in a foreign land is no easy feat) and has a way of developing an individual’s maturity level. Armed with this increased sense of self, you’ll be ready to face your future head on.
7. Turn a hobby into a career.
Many study abroad alumni regret spending so much time Skyping their friends that they didn't get as much out of studying abroad as they'd hoped. Instead of falling into this trap, join a salsa or cooking class. Explore your passions. And your curiosities. And your hunches.
Maybe you enjoy writing, but you were too swamped with exams to start a blog. Now is your chance to dive in! See your time abroad as an empowering experience that helps you do new things, free of the fear of failure. Having the opportunity to take your hobbies more seriously, free of your everyday back-home distractions, is pretty rare.
It is possible to make money doing what you love. Why not start perfecting your craft now?
8. Figure out ways to connect your major to your future.
Maybe you are majoring in sociology because you love the class discussions and the readings. Many people have probably asked you “What are you going to do with that?” (and you aren’t 100 percent sure). Maybe you want to be a social worker, a sociologist, or neither.
Studying abroad will give you the international experience you need to help shape your career path and witness how your major can be applied in broad ways. Your study abroad experience will help you cast a wider career net.
It’s not always easy to take control of your life and define it for yourself. In fact, usually the opposite approach is lauded and supported by society at large. Follow this formula, don’t veer from the path, play it safe, save for retirement. While this is a perfectly fine way to look at life, it does seem to lack a little… za-za-zoom.
We want impassioned people! We want empowered people! We want change makers! We want folks who won’t settle for half-truths and easy-answers! We want invested, engaged, and strong willed young adults (like you!) to come back from study abroad, ready to tackle the future.
Whether you’re the first person in your family to study abroad or your ancestors founded the international studies program at Harvard, studying abroad is an invaluable experience. You will learn to adjust your expectations for the world and for yourself. You will realize how resilient you are when adjusting to life in a different country. By being open to new hobbies and languages, you will figure out what you are passionate about. The passion with which you viewed your personal life abroad will translate to your professional life, whether you choose to work abroad or not!
The best souvenir from your study abroad trip won’t be that cute scarf, but instead an enlightened perspective and clarity for your future.