Is it worth it to study abroad? Is it right for me? Is it a good idea?
Two years ago, I was asking myself these questions. I had never been away from home for longer than a few days, and studying abroad was a massive investment of both time and money. I was approaching my senior year; if I chose not to study abroad, I could graduate early and get a head start on a career. On top of that, I wasn’t sure I was prepared to spend an entire semester four thousand miles away from my family and friends. There were a lot of costs and benefits to weigh—which I did, since I tend to overthink everything!
My research into whether or not study abroad was worthwhile became the topic of one of my academic papers. I read dozens of reviews of the study abroad programs I was considering and investigated statistics about study abroad’s impact on students. While surveys show that students often grow in adaptability, open-mindedness, and independence because of study abroad, many of the reviews I read discussed how difficult it can be to live on a budget while abroad and the lack of academic challenge that students found in their courses overseas.
I concluded that the financial cost of studying abroad was too high for it to really be worth it. I wrote in my paper,
It’s not necessary to pressure yourself into [study abroad], thinking that you will be missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There are exciting opportunities everywhere, even here on your home campus, and most of them don’t cost twice your college tuition.
Guys, I was so wrong!
I thought I had closed the chapter on study abroad, but life had other plans. After saving a few thousand dollars from a summer internship, I applied for a semester exchange program on a whim. That’s how I found myself on a plane to England in January of 2017, bracing myself for the next five months away from everyone and everything I knew.
Despite all the research I had done, all the reviews I had read, statistics are really no comparison to experiencing something for yourself. If you’re like I was and have never left the country before, I can assure you that time abroad—whether you’re traveling, working, or studying—will be nothing like you can imagine. It’s a completely new experience, and that alone, in my opinion, makes it worthwhile. If you never try it, you will never find out how it could affect your perspective or career plans. Studying abroad is an adventure—it will have ups and downs. But the lows help you grow, and the highs are memories you will have for the rest of your life.
If that doesn’t convince you, here are five things I experienced during my time abroad that, to me, made it worthwhile.
1) You meet great people
The number-one thing I got during my semester abroad was some of the best friendships of my life. I wasn’t expecting these friendships at all—I struggled to make friends at my home university, and one of my biggest concerns going into my exchange program was that I would be lonely. But the experience of being in a new place and traveling together really bonds you.
The people I met were totally different both from what I expected and from my friends back home. My new acquaintances were from other countries, backgrounds, and religions—and I learned a ton from them. Everyone, from the other people staying in my hostels to my new flatmates, had an interesting story to tell.
At a time when I didn’t feel especially valued by my friends back home, my study abroad friends made me feel like they really wanted me around—they showed me true kindness and friendship. I keep in touch with many of the friends I met during study abroad. I now have friends and acquaintances not only across the US, but also in Australia, New Zealand, England, Spain, and elsewhere.
It definitely makes my Instagram feed more interesting.
2) You learn to persevere
Four to five months doesn’t sound like a long time, but it can feel like a long time.
In early March, I had been in England for a month and a half, and I was ready to get on a plane and go home. I missed my family; I was terribly homesick. The weather was cold and gray, and I hated my classes. I called my dad and asked if I could come home. He laughed it off at first and told me I would be just fine. But I was serious—I wanted to leave England.
That same week, I traveled to Ireland with a few friends over a university holiday, and it turned my study abroad experience around. I was still homesick and lonely at times—those feelings never completely went away. But at the end of the semester, I was so proud of myself for not giving up when I thought I couldn’t go on. I learned and saw so much in the months that followed my conversation with my dad. If I had gone home because of the tough times, I would have missed out on the good times that were just around the corner.
3) You become more at home in the world
I had never been to a country where they spoke another language. I had never navigated a major subway system or foreign airport. Now that I’ve done those things, they aren’t scary to me anymore. Studying abroad provides a support system as you learn to live in another country and culture. After that, doing it again, if you want to, is much less daunting.
4) The travel opportunities are tremendous
Probably part of the reason you want to study abroad is to take interesting classes, learn another language, or have a great internship that will give your resume a boost. I was all about building my resume in college, so I completely understand where you’re coming from. But while I came to appreciate the classes I took abroad, the part that stuck with me the most was the travel. When else in your life will you have a chance to live in and explore another country for a whole semester?
If you’re in Europe, like I was, it is cheap and easy to get around. You can jet off to another country for $30. Anywhere you study abroad, you will have unique access to places you don’t when you’re at home. Take advantage of it—I was traveling almost every weekend, but if that doesn’t work for you, you can tack on travel time at the beginning or end of your program.
And while traveling just to sightsee can be great, traveling in a way that connects to your studies is even more meaningful. I took a class called “Art and Architecture in Venice,” and as a field trip, we spent a week in Venice for a total of maybe £300. After reading Jane Eyre in a class, a friend and I visited the home where Charlotte Bronte grew up. I ate at the pub in Oxford where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the rest of the Inklings gathered to talk about their writing. I listened to the same Celtic folktales on a bus tour of the Scottish highlands that I had read at my home university back in Minnesota. After living in England, I could understand why so many famous authors and classic works of literature came from there. The landscape itself exudes history in a way the flat cornfields of Minnesota don’t (but now that I’ve seen it there, I see it more back home, too). There are many learning opportunities outside the classroom in any part of the world—things you can only experience secondhand back home—if you take the initiative to find them.
5) You will grow as a person
Study abroad will stretch you because you’re stepping outside of what is normal for you. One of my biggest challenges, as I mentioned before, was overcoming my shyness to make friends. I knew that I didn’t want to be by myself all the time, so I forced myself to reach out and meet people during orientation. By the end of my program, striking up a conversation with a stranger felt a hundred times more natural and comfortable than it had before. I straight-up learned from my new friends how to ask questions and keep a conversation flowing. When I returned home, I started getting asked out on dates—something that used to happen very rarely. It was because I had learned to be friendlier and more conversational. One thing always leads to another: putting yourself in a position to grow will lead to growth in areas of your life that you never expected.