Have you always dreamed of traveling to cool places, meeting lots of different people, and maybe picking up a language or two? No matter what country you live in, you can fly over the world's highest waterfalls in Venezuela, learn world trade in Japan, study art in France, or take dancing lessons in Ghana.
How? Join a study abroad program, where high school and college students live with a host family in a foreign country. Semester, summer, and year-long programs allow you to attend school, take intensive language courses, or perform community service in another country. Read on to learn more about study abroad programs.
Why Study Abroad?
Besides the excitement of travel, one reason to study abroad is that you will experience new customs, holidays, foods, art, music, and politics firsthand.
"I learned the language and am now fluent, but perhaps more important was how much I learned about cultures, people, and myself. I learned this from the viewpoint of an active member of the community and my [host] family, not from the tourist's point of view," says Andrew, who studied in Poitiers, France.
Another reason for studying abroad is that you'll gain self-confidence. Christina studied in Caracas, Venezuela, a city of 10 million people and a huge change from her hometown of 35,000! Christina says she learned how to better stand up for herself and her beliefs and to express herself in another language. What could make you more confident than that?
Living away from home can also help you adjust in the transition to college and adulthood. Matthew says he returned from studying in Australia with confidence, social savvy, and a genuine interest in international affairs that really set him apart from his peers. "After having gone abroad in high school, I found the transition to college to be a breeze — moving 560 miles from home didn't seem particularly daunting after having lived thousands of miles away."
And speaking of college, improving your language skills might help you get into choice colleges and even land future jobs. Colleges and employers know that studying abroad provides leadership skills in a world that is increasingly globally interconnected.
Most of all, it's fun! You're not likely to suffer from sophomore slump or general boredom while you're studying in a different learning environment.
Are You a Good Candidate?
Although many programs have academic requirements, you usually don't have to have the highest grades or marks to be eligible. And most programs do not have language requirements.
Who you are is as important as your academic record. Study abroad programs look for students who are independent, self-assured, enjoy new experiences and different types of people, and can handle challenges. When you study in a foreign country, you'll be faced with new circumstances, environments, and predicaments.
- Am I willing to try new things — everything from foods to social situations?
- Am I comfortable making my own decisions, such as what time to leave for school, which courses to take, and how to deal with conflict and change, without family or friends around to help?
- Do I like to take risks?
- How have I handled complex and new situations in the past?
- Will I be able to fulfill my academic requirements for my school at home and for any future plans? Make sure you won't miss a test or other requirement.
- Will my school at home accept credits from the programs I am considering?
If you really hate change and don't like the idea of figuring things out all on your own, then studying abroad may not be for you. It's important to really think about your comfort zone and to be honest with yourself — you could end up miserable far away from home if you aren't! Of course, if you want to change those things about yourself and don't mind tackling them head-on, then studying abroad may be an ideal way to take the plunge.
Don't let a little anxiety stop you from considering the possibility of a summer, semester, or year abroad, though. Matthew says he will never forget sitting in the airport about to board a plane bound for Melbourne. "I felt overwhelmed, terrified, and thrilled at the same time," he says. "In the end, though, the rewards of living overseas far outweigh the initial uncertainties."
Applying to a Program
Specific application procedures vary from program to program. In most cases, program personnel design applications and interviews to find out if you're a good fit for the program and a host family, if you'll be staying with one. You might need to answer questions on past obstacles you've encountered and what you've learned from these experiences or write an introductory letter to your potential host family.
You will need to provide personal and school references, health information, and practices (for example, if you have allergies or are a vegetarian). Your parents also may need to tell the program personnel how they feel about your studying abroad. You'll also have to go through interviews with schools or sponsoring organizations.
Pitching the Idea to Your Parents
Are you convinced that a year abroad is for you, but you're worried that your parents will never go for it? Use some of the points of view that sold you on the idea to help them understand why you want to study overseas. Point out that studying abroad is a chance of a lifetime and that it offers great academic opportunities — including learning a second language.
You might also sell them on the idea that students in study abroad programs gain experiences by being in a new culture, broaden their horizons, and increase their maturity and self-confidence levels. Study abroad students have an educational edge when entering college or starting careers, where language skills, cross-cultural experiences, and global outlooks are becoming essential.
If your parents are worried that you'll miss a year of school, won't get credit later, or will be stuck in a foreign country without help or supervision, look into the details of what arrangements the program has regarding these situations. Many study abroad programs are well established — the American Field Service (AFS) student exchange program has been been around for more than 50 years.
Study abroad students are well supervised. Programs usually have offices in host countries, many with 24-hour hotlines. Host families are chosen carefully to meet specific students' needs.
Finding a Program
Hundreds of programs are available through organizations like AFS, Youth for Understanding (YFU), American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS), and the Rotary Club. These organizations and lots more are online — so try a Web search. You can call or write for catalogs.
Other sources of information are school counselors, religious organizations, teachers, librarians, family, and friends. Ask them for recommendations.
But check out programs early — applications can be due 4 to 9 months in advance. Age requirements vary, although students are usually in the 15- to 22-year age range. Program costs can vary, too. But don't let cost scare you away. Many programs have substantial scholarships available, but make sure you apply early. Some programs help students raise money from schools and local organizations.
Staying Healthy Abroad
Depending on where you are going there are a number of suggested immunizations. You and your doctor or a travel medicine specialist should decide which vaccinations are appropriate for you. Make sure to get this information early (several weeks or even months before traveling, if possible) to give yourself enough time to get the vaccines you need.
Travel health insurance is also available in case you become ill or get hurt while you are away. Most plans include a 24-hour hotline for assistance with doctors, dentists, and other health concerns.
In some countries, you may need to drink bottled water and avoid raw foods. You may want to pack products like antiseptic ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, contact lens solution, and adhesive bandages. Don't forget prescription drugs or items like inhalers if you have asthma. And it's a good idea to see your dentist before departure.
In addition to preparing physically, don't neglect your emotional health. Consider journal writing to help process your experience. And prepare for culture shock when you return — you've grown and so have friends and family. You'll also miss your host family and friends.
Prepare yourself for these feelings by getting support from family, friends, a counselor, or another student who has spent time abroad.
Returning the Favor
If you've studied abroad and want to be a host yourself, or if you've decided you don't want to travel but would like the chance to learn about another culture, your family may be a candidate to host a student. Families fill out applications and interview with organization representatives, reviewing profiles (or videos) of students who might be a good fit.
Whether you host a student or study abroad yourself, you're sure to see the world in a new way.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2014
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