Semester Abroad – The Meaning of an Academic Adventure
Yeah, yeah, you already know that – a semester abroad means spending a semester at a foreign university, meeting new people, and learning a new language. Possibly doing a bit of travel. In essence, yes, but have you ever considered what it means not to simply step but skydive out of your comfort zone, plunge into the unknown (YES, ELSA, KEEP CALM!), and submerge into the full scope of the adventure? Thought so! Let’s get to the nitty-gritty! 😊
A semester abroad isn’t just a chance to run away from your family (only to discover that socks don’t wash themselves and meals also don’t particularly like making themselves either) – it’s a chance to experience a life you otherwise probably wouldn’t have known.
Exchange programs have been around for a while – they were institutionalised after World War I when the world realised that better international cooperation and understanding were a must in order to avoid another grand-scale conflict. (Unfortunately, art schools obviously hadn’t heard of this; otherwise, they would have just accepted one angry Austrian and prevented another war). Gallows humour aside, the main idea of international exchanges was to strengthen the bonds among countries all over the world, with high hopes placed on students who were the future.
Do an Exchange Semester Abroad – Reap All the Benefits
In addition to these political aims, studying abroad has been shown time and again to be highly beneficial to students. Some of the most prominent ones include:
- Increased global exposure. Not only will you get a chance to immerse yourself in your host country and culture, but you will also most likely spend a good deal of time with other exchange students from all over the world. All universities with international partnerships offer plenty of introductory events, get-togethers, and international food days where newcomers get a chance to enjoy themselves and present their cultures. Take a chance and become a true global citizen by studying abroad.
- Improving language skills. I don’t even need to tell you that knowing more languages changes your perception of the world (and bonus: it makes your brain work faster). How does that look? It looks like it makes you smarter. When you go abroad, make sure to enrol in a language course in your host country. If you’ve been learning the language already, try using it as much as possible. The language you’ll hear from the locals will be quite different from what your teachers tell you is the standard variety.
- Real-life context of your studies. Whatever you’re studying can find its way into your semester/year abroad. If you’re doing languages and culture, I don’t need to say more. If you’re more on the scientific side, try and find a way to attend lectures at various labs or engineering events. Try to implement what you already know and expand your academic horizons.
- Lifelong friendships. You may have best friends at home, but sharing an experience, such as studying in a foreign country, forges equally strong bonds that cross boundaries.
- Increased communication and cooperation skills. You will come across many colourful personalities during your time abroad, and sometimes, you’ll have to ramp up your soft skills to navigate all these twisty waters. As a result, you’ll become a splendid communicator by the end of your exchange program.
- Increased confidence. Studying abroad is all about challenging yourself. You’ll have to learn to fend for yourself; manage your own time, lifestyle, and problems; juggle various social and academic obligations; and try new things. Stepping out of the comfort zone and seeing that it’s (shocked Pikachu face) not that scary will give you a huge confidence boost.
Here’s What You Can Expect from a Semester Abroad – College and University Edition
Daring to dream and jump into the new academic milieu may seem daunting. I won’t sugarcoat the experience. There will be difficult times, so I’m giving you a heads-up on what you can expect along the way.
- Culture shock. After your initial excitement wanes, you might experience a sense of homesickness, displacement, and loss as you navigate the new culture. Don’t worry; this is perfectly normal, although how you behave may determine your mood for the rest of the trip. If you do your best to keep an open mind and embrace all of the host culture – the good and bad –you’ll have a whale of a time.
- Difficulties in communication. Whatever you’ve learnt about the language of the host culture, you’ll be surprised by the locals. The ‘living language’ is full of non-standard sounds and sayings, and locals won’t always use the literary variety. This means you get to learn the language as it’s used, and you might hit some communicative walls. Don’t be discouraged, though; just keep trying!
- New friends. You won’t be the only person at your university. From other exchange students to that one person who always sits next to you in the cafeteria, new friendships are just waiting to be found!
- Conflict situations. You’ll have to deal with many types of conflict – from rooming disagreements over dishes to your own conflicting emotions as you navigate the new place. But all these will make you stronger, smarter, and better prepared to take on any challenge in life.
- Lots of parties. Come on, what’s a semester abroad without them? 😊
- An experience of a lifetime!
Semester vs Year Abroad – Whichever You Pick, the Benefits Are There!
In addition to those political aims of establishing good communication among many countries, spending some time abroad has been shown to have indisputable benefits for students. The only difference between spending one semester abroad or the whole year is time. If you have a whole year, you’ll most likely be able to take things more slowly and get a better grasp of the new culture.
In a single semester abroad, time tends to fly by. From the moment your new temporary dean welcomes you to the time you finally feel like you can relax, it’s time to go home. From what I’ve observed in single-semester exchanges, many students hardly ever get the chance to truly feel the host culture. What I’m saying is, if you can get the whole year in the wild, you should most definitely take it!
If your university offers only one-semester exchanges, don’t be discouraged. Six months is still a long time, and you can avoid some typical pitfalls by doing these five things:
- Don’t just hang out with other international students. If you’re always with other exchange students, you’re still in a reasonably cosy comfort zone. People speak English, mostly stick together in classes, and party together. What they don’t do is carve out their own paths around the new place, explore enough, and get as many benefits out of the whole’ challenge yourself’ idea.
- Don’t be afraid to speak the language. Take it from me who spent years in a foreign country and was too afraid to speak because ‘wHaT iF I mAkE mIsTakEs!?’ Ridiculous. You’ll see that speaking to natives will have monumental effects on your language knowledge.
- Don’t be afraid to be alone. Go for long walks or take a train to the next city. Experiences you make while alone will last even longer because of the inherent sense of intimacy with your own memories and thoughts. Don’t miss out on it by waiting around for others. In fact, make it a point to go solo now and then.
- Pick classes you like and that make sense to you. Definitely stop following your friends all the time. On the same note, attend your classes regularly. This is a unique chance to get an insight into how the higher education system works in another country. Different cultures have different perspectives on things, and they perceive and teach them differently. Now’s the chance to walk a scholarly mile in someone else’s shoes!
- Engage in a cultural hobby. From cooking classes to art to local sports – do some research on what has lots of local flavour and give it a shot!
In general, whichever you choose, you’ll grow immensely as a person while out there. Be it a year or six months, studying abroad is always a good idea, so what are you waiting for? Let’s get packing!
Best Luggage for a Semester Abroad – the Ultimate Packing List
Does going abroad for a year give you the urge to metamorphose into a snail and bring your whole house? Me too. But unless you can pull some amazing feat of magic off, we’re going to have to do this the hard way.
Let me preface this by saying that packing for abroad is not that much of a nightmare. The blessed fact is that you can always do your laundry there and buy more clothes if you need some. But, let’s not jump the gun straight away. The things you’ll most definitely need will be the same as when you travel somewhere:
- Personal documents. IDs, passports, university admission letters, and confirmations of your participation in the exchange program are a must. Similarly, your driver’s licence, bank cards, and insurance/healthcare cards should not stay at home.
- Enough cash. The first several days may be a whirlwind, so it’s good to have some spare cash on you for public transport, basic shopping, SIM cards, etc.
- Basic hygiene items. Depending on where you are staying, supermarkets and pharmacies may not be available on the first day. It may be prudent to bring your personal basics and faves to avoid the stress of trying to find them in the nick of time. The same goes for medicine. Studying abroad also means that medicine is different, and you might need time to figure out what works for you. Stash some painkillers, flu and cold medicine, and any specific medication you may use. (I kid you not: when I moved abroad, I brought a roll of toilet paper because I had no idea if I would have it at my dorm and if the supermarket would be closed).
- Enough pairs of socks and undies. I can promise you that you don’t want to be doing the laundry in the first week of your stay abroad. You’ll barely have time to breathe! Bring enough underwear, socks, and several pairs of trousers and shirts for the first time.
- Some stationery. Pens, papers, notebooks – better be ready to take all the notes.
- If necessary, some basic cutlery and crockery. Many places come with their own kitchenettes in rooms, but there’s usually no cutlery or other amenities. I found that some simple pots and a pan, as well as a few bowls/deep plates, are a very convenient way to ensure you don’t only eat fast food when you’re abroad.
- A good jacket. There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes. While you may not be made out of sugar, you don’t want to test your tolerance to colds.
- Your basic gadgets. Your beloved smartphone, laptop, kindle, and all corresponding chargers cannot go amiss on an academic journey.
See, not that hard, eh? Additional items may include your favourite blanket, stuffed animal or pillow, and some items of personal importance like photos, memorabilia, and/or your favourite snack to remind you of home.
At the End of the Day, What Are the Best Semester Abroad Programs?
As always, picking THE best out of a wide, diverse variety of options is just a wild goose chase. The best exchange program is the one that challenges you as a person, teaches you both about yourself and the world, and allows you to have fun.
To reiterate: regardless of whether you’re staying abroad for a semester or the whole year, you should make the most out of the experience. Immerse yourself in the culture, speak the language, and travel around. Eat local food and become a part of a local club/sports team to get the taste of your host culture. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and strike meaningful friendships with people, but don’t run from being alone either.
Lastly, make the most out of your university experience. Attend lectures and show off all your knowledge. Let the whole new academic system seep into your mind, get attuned to different teaching and learning styles, and remember – being abroad is a privilege. Take that as a motivation to study and improve on all fronts.
What are you waiting for? Time to fill out some forms and start your adventure abroad! 😊