Taking advantage of non-traditional study abroad programs

There are many options to consider in order to become prepared for a global economy

By Amelia Mezrahi, New York, NY

Each year, about 300,000 students at U.S. universities study abroad.  The advantages are clear.  Professionally, as the world becomes more globalized and U.S. firms ever more linked to and dependent on foreign markets, students gain valuable insight and experiences abroad.  Personally, it is also a chance for maturation and exploration as students learn independence and take advantage of a study abroad location as a springboard for travel to neighboring cities and countries.  And where study abroad once meant separation from family and friends but for the occasional long distance phone call or postcard, in today’s interconnected world students are in constant touch with friends and family via email, Skype, Facebook, Whatsapp, and other services.

Traditionally, students might do a semester abroad at a satellite campus to their own university or another such school.  This allowed for a simple transfer of grades and records, a ready group of classmates for friendship and travel.  Students who are seeking a more immersive experience might enroll in a foreign university directly, often on an exchange program.

However, such programs do not work for every student.  Some students find their schedules too tight to take a semester abroad.  They may have very specific major requirements and technical courses that are not offered abroad.  They may have transferred recently to their new school and need or want to stay on campus.  Or they may prefer a foreign experience that is outside their normal college programs.

There are also more alternative study abroad options than ever.  Programs run for all lengths and all times of the year, including those during student breaks.

Three options warrant particular consideration. 

First, students should consider a gap year between high school and college.  Long an option among students is in Europe as well as countries like Australia and New Zealand. Gap years have grown in popularity in the U.S. as well.  Travel during gap years allow for true independence as students explore the globe, but it can also be combined with the other options discussed below.

Second, students can look at placed internships in study abroad programs.  There are several direct advantages of such programs.  Students gain some business/office experience.  More and more programs are specific to fields, like medicine, or sciences.  They not only have something to show on a resume and tout in interviews, but to demonstrate for potential employer they are responsible and independent as well as possess an understanding of basic office etiquette.  More advanced students interested in graduate school can also look at placement at foreign schools and institutes as research assistants.

Third, student might consider international service learning (e.g. volunteering) programs.  This can be done before, during or after college, but allows for intense personal development, exposure to real world challenges and tougher working environments (especially given the increasing luxury of some universities).  Programs vary greatly in location, duration and cost in order to maximize student flexibility as well.

This also brings us to the selection of a location.  When selecting study abroad locations, the world is your oyster.  Over half of students study in Europe, where linguistic barriers are low (or students may wish to brush up on languages studied in the U.S.) at the same time infrastructure and communications are excellent and safety and convenience are high.  For many students, Europe will always be the go to location.  However, students should not overlook other locations.  Given that Asia will be responsible for over half of world GDP in coming decades, it should definitely be on student’s radar.  Asian languages are more difficult if a student wants to pick up fluency, but the market attractiveness of them is also high.  (If language skills are a motivation, students should definitely try to start before leaving and leverage those initial courses when there.)  Countries like China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore have fascinating cultures and exciting economies.  Latin America offers great opportunities for American students to develop their Spanish and numerous volunteer opportunities.   Africa similarly has many programs with a strong development angle and opportunity for some American students to reconnect with their roots.

For any program you are looking at, be sure to carefully read reviews, exam written commitments and details about lodging, costs and experiences.  Whenever possible ask to speak to the alumni of the programs, not just for their reviews, but also tips to make the most of your time abroad.  Foreign health emergencies and trip insurance are typical in most programs, but should be checked as well.

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