As we put together a series of talks at colleges and universities in the United States this month on the topics of international education, study abroad, travel, and global citizenship we realized that there was A LOT of information cover. As we put this together, we realized that this information might be useful for other students interested in international travel and study abroad.
- Our own study abroad experiences
- Why travel or study abroad as a student?
- Study abroad decisions
- Getting outside the study abroad or travel bubble
- Positioning your study abroad or international experience
- DIY international education and experience
- Budget travel tips
Our own study abroad experiences
Dan and I have different experiences and backgrounds when it comes to study abroad during university.
For me, I knew I wanted to study abroad from the moment I started university. It was more a matter of where and what (e.g., subject/focus). In the end, I chose to study in Toulouse, France in a language-intensive program focused on experiential learning administered by the School for International Training. The reasons for this decision were that I wanted to study outside of Paris where I knew I'd be tempted to hang out with other Americans and speak English, I wanted to live with a French host family, and I wanted an experiential approach to coursework. What this meant was that when we learned about religion our group went and talked with a priest. When we discussed unemployment in France, we went to an unemployment center on the outskirts of town. The experience also included a two-week internship or independent study opportunity as well. For me, it was a perfect blend of traditional coursework and experiential learning opportunities. And, thanks to the credits earned on this study abroad program I was able to have a double major — Economics and French Literature.
Dan was interested in study abroad, but didn't think he could make it work for him — either from a financial (he already had substantial student loans) or coursework perspective. It just seemed like a pipe dream. Looking back, he realizes that although it would have been challenging, study abroad would likely have been possible if he had been more determined and resourceful. Dan doesn't have lot of regrets in his life, but study abroad is one of the things he wishes he had pursued more as if he had a different perspective he probably could have made it work.
Why travel or study abroad as a student?
Study abroad and international experience can be an incredible experiential learning opportunity. It is one of the best contexts to develop crucial life and business skills such as empathy, problem solving, two-way storytelling, resilience, adaptability, being present, letting go, incorporating adventure into one's life, going outside your comfort zone, and living deliberately.
Yes, that's a mouthful. Essentially, this comes down to the fact that study abroad can be a sort of prep course or PhD in life. You have the opportunity learn about the world, its people, and yourself. And to be able to do this when you are young may open up so many doors for you — personally and professionally — that will impact your entire life.
Additionally, as a student or young traveler you also usually don't have as many life or family obligations and are more flexible to different sleeping situations (e.g., hostels), long bus rides, carrying a backpack, etc.
“You don't always realise what you're learning when you're learning it. Realisations often come later in life – trust in the experience and know that nothing is ever wasted, and mistakes always teach.” – Anna McKeon
Study abroad decisions: style of program and funding
Each college and university approaches study abroad in a different way, so the first stop you should make is at your school's study abroad or international education office. You'll get a better feel for your study abroad options — either directly with your school or accredited programs through other organizations or institutions.
As you think about your personal, educational and professional goals for study abroad, here are a couple of factors you might want to consider and decisions you'll need to make to best meet those goals.
For a really comprehensive guide on study abroad decisions and elements check out Studying Abroad: Step-by-Step
Where to study
There is no right answer in terms of where as it all comes down to trying to answer the question above: “What are my goals for study abroad?”
The advice we will offer, however, is to choose countries and places that are different than what you are used to, that maybe scare you a bit, that you don't know much about. In other words, consider studying abroad in a country that will challenge you personally, cross-culturally, linguistically, and programatically. So if your focus is on learning Spanish, perhaps consider a program in Peru or Ecuador.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/South-America/Peru/Machu-Picchu/i-nnz5XSQ/ATaking in the beauty of Machu Picchu in Peru.
Additionally, consider choosing programs in smaller cities rather than the capital city. Often, the capital city has more foreign students and travelers where English is more common. For me, this is why I chose Toulouse over Paris. My friends who did study in Paris returned without becoming as fluent as me because they had more opportunity to hang out with other American and English-speaking students.
Length of study abroad
Study abroad trends in the United States show that shorter programs (1-8 weeks) are becoming more popular with students. These shorter programs tend to take place during winter, spring or summer break and are a good fit for those with considerable financial and time constraints (e.g., working a job and can't take much time off of work). These shorter programs are also good for those who have a strict or heavy course-load for their major and they don't have much flexibility in the courses they can take.
However, if you do have the option to spend a semester (or more) abroad we'd like to encourage you to do so. This will give you more time to immerse in a different culture and language with all of the experiences, challenges, and victories that go with that. We've heard anecdotally that some students who are on short-term programs will get in touch with their universities towards the end of the program to ask if they can extend.
Additionally, many students who do semester or year-long programs have the opportunity to travel around after the program, which provides even more opportunities for learning and growth.
Style of program
Studying in a local university: Many study abroad programs allow you to enroll in classes at a foreign university. This provides ample opportunity to meet local students and professors so that you feel like a local. Additionally, if all the classes are taught in a foreign language this will certain push you towards fluency rather quickly. Taking courses this way may feel challenging and overwhelming at first, but this immersion in another culture and language will really allow you to learn quickly.
Homestays: Especially if language learning is one of the goals of your study abroad experience, consider choosing a program that incorporates homestays so that you are living with a family. This will not only provide you with an immersive language environment, but you will also be more engaged with local culture and people. I credit much of my becoming fluent in French to my homestay experience and my host family. They really made me part of the family, including taking me to all family events and outings, and were supportive and patient of my language learning.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/keyword/Hatiandha/i-3sdGjXw/ALearning to cook local dishes is another great benefit from homestay experiences.
Experiential learning options: In the study abroad program that I chose through School for International Training I was not enrolled in local university classes. Instead, our courses were with other students who were part of the program and many of these happened outside of the traditional classroom where we went to speak to experts or practitioners in the field we were studying (e.g., a French priest to discuss religion and religious history in France). I really enjoyed this approach, and if your program doesn't include this option consider trying to create your own experiential learning opportunities by interviewing professionals or experts in your field of study.
Funding or financing options
Money is perhaps one of the biggest impediments for students who do want to study abroad. Some programs
Just a few of the places you can start your search for funding, scholarships or financial aid:
- Study Abroad Funding
- U.S. Department of Education Loan Opportunities
- Omprakash Ethical Global Engagement Grants
- Go Abroad Study Abroad Scholarships
Getting outside the study abroad or travel bubble
One of the challenges with any study abroad program or with travel, no matter what the length, is to be sure that you get out of the bubble or your comfort zone. It's easy, comfortable, fun to hang out with fellow students and in restaurants, bars and clubs filled with other foreign students or travelers. But, you won't be challenging yourself and growing by doing this.
So how can you engage more with the people and the place where you're studying? Here are a few ideas:
- Find groups or clubs of people with similar interests or sports. Are you a musician? Or perhaps you play basketball or soccer? Maybe you have an interest in stand-up comedy or gaming. Or, you want to explore yoga or meditation in a different way. By using services like MeetUp or searching on local Facebook groups you'll likely find that there is a local group or club for every activity or interest. This will provide you with a way to really engage with local people. Don't be afraid to ask local students or professors for where you can join a club or group.
- How to Travel Outside Your Comfort Zone. Many of the tips included in this article are about how to better connect with locals: strike out on your own, get lost, follow your curiosity.
- Go where the locals go. This may sound obvious, but when we travel we don’t always follow this advice and instead spend our time in tourist sites as these are the places usually in our guidebooks and form the anchors to our trip. It’s important to see the sites, but be sure to plan some time outside of them as well. Some of the best places to do this is at parks, neighborhoods outside city center, public transportation and markets.
- Visit the fresh market. One of the first places we usually go when we arrive in a new place is the fresh market. This provides us grounding for a place as the market is usually a cross-section of society and full of activity. Not only are locals at the market to buy food, but they are also there to exchange information and meet people. And if you show your curiosity about food there are endless opportunities to engage with vendors and other locals. Don’t be shy, ask questions (see below). Note: be sure that when you ask a local about where the market is that you ask for the food market as many people will assume that you mean the souvenir market.
- Ask questions like a child. When you show your genuine curiosity, people will respond accordingly and want to share of themselves, their culture and their home country. We find the best way to engage and show this curiosity is by asking questions like a kid. What this means is: 1) don’t be embarrassed to speak up and 2) don’t make assumptions, that you already know the answer. Questions that we might think of as “obvious” or “stupid” can yield new knowledge and a connection that begins with the answer to your question and perhaps ends with a long discussion. Sometimes it can lead to being invited to tea, dinner or just to join the person again. Example: When you’re at the fresh market ask questions about fruit, vegetable, spices and dishes that you don’t know about. Start with, “What is the name of this in your language? How do you use it (e..g, spices or veg)? How do you eat this?” You may begin talking about spices and end up talking about families and life.
- Be present. Plan less & put down the device. It’s easy to be busy and hide in devices, at home as well as on the road. The less you are rushing around the more you can slow down and observe. This helps you take in all that is around you – place and people. When you put down the device you are more open to the environment and situation around you. This helps you connect to the place and people.
- Walk and take public transport. It’s easy to put up barriers and protect yourself from people and the place you’re visiting by taking taxis or private transport. But when you walk you are close to the action on the street – to the people, smells, sounds, energy, life. And travel by public transport provides a great glimpse on ordinary life. We’ve also found that many people are not expecting tourists on public transport so they “adopt” you to make sure you get off at the right place and know the best things to do.
- More ideas: Traveling with Connection.
Positioning your study abroad or international experience
More and more, employers are looking for people with international experience, including intercultural skills and the ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds. Perhaps one of the best cases we've seen for pursuing study abroad and international experience is that it helps you develop the skills that will be most in demand in the future. The recent World Economic Forum reports on The Future of Jobs summarizes this shift in demanded skills from 2015 to 2020. Take a look at the 2020 list here, including critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, coordinating with others. These are all skills that can be actively developed and built during study abroad.
Think of your study abroad or international experience as a job and take inventory of your experiences – both inside and outside the classroom. Thin of how you can speak of or tell the story your successes, whether it is overcoming challenges, working in cross-cultural teams or learning a new language.
Another thing to consider is how to document your study abroad or international experience as a project or online portfolio. This will give you something concrete that you can show or send for internships or future employers that exemplifies your reflection on all that you are learning, your skills, your determination, your growth.
Here are some resources for how to take inventory of your study abroad or international experience and position it effectively on your resume or in interviews:
- How to Sell Your Overseas Experience to Employers
- Marketing your Study Abroad Experience
- How to talk about study abroad in a job interview
DIY international education and experience
Official study abroad programs are always a good choice, especially if you are at university and are trying to get course credit, but they certainly not the only option out there for gaining international experience. In fact, you might be able to get credit for these experiences if you talk with your advisor or international office.
Internship or field placement
If you want to try and get more professional experience in your field of study or area of expertise, consider an internship or field placement abroad. This could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year depending upon the program and your schedule. One great place for researching and finding quality and diverse field placements is Omprakash as all of their partner organizations are vetted and the costs associated are very reasonable as they cover food and accommodation.
The benefits of volunteering abroad are many — you are often immersed in and heavily engaged with a community. Additionally, working together with others on community projects can be incredibly fulfilling and educational. However, if you are considering volunteering abroad we ask you to read this article first to understand some of the potential pitfalls and potential negative consequences of international volunteering and know what to look for in a volunteering position and organization.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/Asia/India/West-Bengal-Photos/i-xnmCwxSLearning from leaders of a microfinance project in West Bengal, India.
One popular volunteering option that we strongly suggest you avoid is orphanage volunteering as the studies continue to show the harm that can come to children and societies from this.
A few ethical volunteering resources with vetted local organizations include:
One of the best investments we ever made in our language development was spending two weeks at a Spanish language program in Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala. The school (we chose and recommend Casa Xelaju, but there are other schools) provided us with 4-5 hours of private instruction each day plus a homestay family (accommodation plus all meals). And the cost for all this? $165-$175 per week per person.
No, we weren't completely fluent after studying Spanish for only two weeks. But, this experience provided us with a strong base from which we could continue learning and growing during the 15 months we spent traveling through Central and South America. Before too long we were able to negotiate almost all travel-related items and also get into rather complex discussions with local people we met along our travels.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/Central-America/Guatemala/Quetzaltenango-Guatemala/i-brHwDP9/AFresh markets in Xela were always a great place to practice our Spanish.
There are many such programs like this one throughout Latin America (e.g., Antigua and Xela in Guatemala, Cusco and Arequipa in Peru). If immersing yourself in another language is your goal, intensive instruction combined with a homestay program is a great way to do it. It's often reasonably priced, too.
For more on language learning read: 7 Tips for Learning Foreign Languages on the Road.
Work abroad programs
One of my best — and most life skills educational — experiences at university was going to work in London for the summer between first and second years. I managed to convince a friend to come with me. Essentially, we bought short-term work permits through Bunac so that we could work legally in London and the organization also offered support to help you get started on the job and accommodation search. It was quite a learning — and confidence building — experience to secure a short-term room in a house and find a job (I worked as a secretary for a temp agency) in a short period of time. Then, we had to figure out how to live within our pitiful salaries so we became creative by eating lots of vegetarian Indian food and figuring out ever student discount for securing cheap theatre and other tickets. We had a great time and we returned with a feeling of accomplishment and confidence that we could make our own way in a big city like London. (Note: It seems like Bunac's visa program has changed slightly as it's now called an intern program.)
There are several countries in the world that have work-visa programs that make it easier for people under the age of 30 to work abroad. Some of the more popular include: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, and Singapore. During our travels through Australia and New Zealand we've met lots of young people from all over the world working in cafes, hotels, farms, wineries, and more through these working holiday visa programs.
If you have some flexibility after graduation this can be a great way to get international experience and earn some money at the same time. Many people will work for a certain period of time and then use some of the money they've earned to travel for a few months, either inside that country or in the region.
Teaching English is another option that can take you to almost any corner of the globe as there always seem to be regular schools, private schools, tutoring, or business courses that are looking for native English speakers. In fact, teaching English us often an intermediary step that people will take when they first arrive in a country and before they have a “real” job. Now, it's not quite so easy as you just show up at a school and show that you are fluent. But, the pathway to having the right qualifications is relatively straightforward.
First thing is that you'll need to determine which combination of TEFL, TESOL, or TESL certifications you need for where you want to teach (this article breaks it all down). Then, you'll need to star applying to schools. This could happen when you're still at home. Or, do your research to see which cities our countries have lots of English teaching opportunities so you can show up and apply when you are on the ground. Usually, the school that hires you will sponsor your visa in that country.
If you're serious about teaching English abroad, consider investing in this ebook that has all the steps laid out and lots of resources.
Although gap years have been popular in the United Kingdom and Australia for decades they are just starting to take off in the United States. Traditionally, gap years have been done before university so that you have a year to explore and defer starting university for a year.
However, the concept of a gap year after graduating college and before going into the workforce is becoming more common and popular. During this time you may want to do some combination of working, volunteering, and traveling. The American Gap Association has a lot of resources for all of these options, as well as ways to position your gap year for your education or profession.
Student travel on a budget: tips and tricks
We've often argued that travel itself is perhaps one of the greatest platforms for building business and life skills. Try to carve out some time and money to do a trip, whether it's for a few weeks in the summer or a week over spring break, that allows you to explore, get lost, immerse yourself in a different culture or language. You'll not only come away thinking differently about the world, but also your place in it and your life journey ahead.
You still might be asking: How can I justify the money and time needed for travel? What are the intangible benefits of travel?
A few resources on the intersection of travel and personal growth:
- 10 Ways Travel Helps You Let Go
- Building a Story-Filled Life: What is Your “What If?”
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Travelers
- How and Why to Be Present in Travel…and Life
There is also more research coming out that indicates that humans derive more happiness and satisfaction when they spent money on experiences rather than stuff. Theres articles – here and here — go into the psychology and research into why this is.
For more on travel services and companies we use in our own travels check out: World Travel Resources
Choosing where to go
All countries in the world are certainly not the same when it comes to costs. It's possible to live rather well on $20-$30/day in Thailand, while that amount would likely not even buy you a dorm bed in Norway. So where you choose to travel will have a huge impact on your travel budget — not only in terms of airline costs, but in day-to-day expenses (e.g., accommodation, food, activities, transport).
Some of the cheaper areas of the world to travel include Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos), South Asia, Central America, parts of South America (e.g., Peru and Bolivia) and parts of Eastern Europe. If money is a big concern, consider starting your travels in one of these regions where you'll be able to find cheap accommodation (e.g., $5-$15/night), street food, and public transport. These areas also may challenge you and push your comfort zone…in a good way.
This isn't to say that you should avoid Europe, but if you are worried about your budget consider starting in Spain and Portugal or in Eastern or Southern Europe (e.g., Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria).
Usually, some of the cheapest accommodation around is in a dormitory bed in a hostel. This is relatively easy to find doing Google searches or using a site like Hostelworld where you can check out ratings, prices, and services. If you're traveling in Europe, check out our friend's latest free Luxury Hostels of Europe Guide. However, hostels are not the only game in town when it comes to budget accommodation.
- Locally run guesthouses: We've often found that if we walk around a town for a while we can find a locally run guesthouse (usually without an online presence) with private rooms that cost the same (or less) than a bed in a well-known hostel. This takes a little effort, but it's usually worth it.
- Airbnb: In many towns and cities, Airbnb offers an inexpensive way to either rent a room or rent an entire house or apartment. If you are traveling with a few friends the latter option might be the most economical as you'll also have access to your own kitchen to cook your own food. For example, we've rented great apartments through airbnb that cost less than a hostel. If you're new to Airbnb, use this link to get $25 off your first rental.
- Couchsurfing: Don't think of Couchsurfing as just a free place to stay. Instead, it's really a cultural exchange platform where both host and guest are expected to engage and spend time together.
- For booking a regular hotel, we usually get a feel for availability and prices by checking Expedia, Booking.com, or Skyscanner. If you are traveling in Asia, then start with Agoda for a vast selection and good prices. The map function on these sites is handy if you want to find hotels near a train station, downtown site, or specific neighborhood. When we’ve narrowed down our choices as to which hotel we want, we will check the actual hotel website for prices and then book wherever the price is the lowest. If you are booking last minute then these accommodation sites may have lower prices than going direct.
More resources on finding cheap accommodation:
- Accommodation Websites: Which is Best?
- More on finding cheap accommodation, from Couchsurfing to Hostels
- How to Find Cheap Accommodation
Exploring local foods is one of our favorite components of travel. Fortunately, in many parts of the world you don't need to spend a lot to eat well as street food is abundant, delicious and cheap. So, when we think of keeping our food budget low when traveling we focus on street food, quick eats at the local fresh market, and lunch specials (i.e., eating biggest meal of the day at lunch).
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/Travel-Photos-Around-World/World-Food-Markets/Southeast-Asia-Food-Markets/i-ZvMZ53QThailand, one of the best places in the world for street food.
More resources on eating local:
- How to Travel Without Hugging the Bowl: 10 Tips for Eating Local and Staying Healthy
- How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick
- Gluten free travel guides and translation cards
Note: Occasionally, we'll use affiliate links for products and services that we use and recommend. If you purchase these through our website with this link, the price will stay the same to you and we get a percentage as a commission. This is a way to support us so we can keep sharing stories from around the world. Thank you!