I was granted an opportunity I could not pass down – the ability to spend a semester abroad in Spain. Though I was able to go abroad through the help of scholarships, I will admit that going abroad is not an easy journey. However, there are many ways you can make studying abroad a possibility for your life.
1. Research programs and scholarships thoroughly.
There are dozens of different study abroad programs available. A great way to learn about some is to attend the Gap Year Fair at Los Altos High, where you can meet representatives from different programs and speak to them about the experience. Also, websites like studyabroad.com offer huge directories of programs complete with quick and dirty fact sheets that can help you narrow down your options. It’s good to know what you’re getting into beforehand so you can select the right program for you.
Many study abroad organizations, like CIEE and YFU, offer their own scholarships, and others offer work-based or volunteer-based scholarships, where you are given money to write blog posts for the company or participate in community service work in your country of choice. Even the US government offers scholarships to study abroad to, a famous one being the Congress-Bundenstag Youth Exchange Scholarship, as well as the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) scholarship. Many of these scholarships are country-based and require a certain level of time commitment to attending interviews and finalist meetings, but if you go for it you just may be granted one – and it’s a full scholarship!
2. Get a job.
This may seem off-topic or unrelated, but if you want to go abroad, getting a job is a great way to prepare yourself for the experience, especially if you are not looking into scholarships. Many countries, especially European and East-Asian ones, are a bit more expensive to live in than the States, so it’s nice to have money saved up so you can splurge on nice meals or travel within the country. Having a job also prepares you for just how tired you will be while you’re abroad (because you will always be tired).
3. Brush up on your language skills.
To be honest, unless you’re a native speaker of the language, you’re probably going to find yourself very lost during the first month you’re abroad, no matter how many years you have studied the language. This is because many countries have distinct regional dialects that are different from the style of language you learn in school, plus some even speak completely different languages (like Catalan, the language spoken in Barcelona, Spain, or the Tuscan language of Italy). Regardless of how difficult it will be, going with a little bit of knowledge is better than none because you may be able to understand 5% of what’s going on instead of only 1%.
4. Be ready to put your life on hold for six months.
This one may seem ridiculous – how do you put your life on hold at all, let alone for half a year? But if you’re going to study abroad, you have to understand that you are not just going abroad to enjoy yourself. There’s a huge chance that you might be in a country with limited internet connection – many households in Southern Europe don’t have internet in their houses, and wifi cafes are sparse. This extends to other areas of the world as well. With limited contact to your life back home, you have to invest yourself completely in the new culture around you. This means giving up on some extracurriculars or passing up AP work for a year. This may seem like no big-deal to some, but to those who are motivated to study abroad just for the college boost, it must be understood that going abroad is not just another extracurricular like Key Club or basketball. It’s a 24/7 dedication, and when you come back you may find yourself behind in classes or even pushed out of other leadership opportunities.
If you’re not ready to stop life for six months to a year, you can still study abroad. Many programs offer special 6-to-12 week summer programs, but instead of attending a school with other citizens of the country of your age, you will instead participate in a language school or volunteer work. This is a great alternative to participating in a semester- or year-long program because you get a taste of full immersion without the same level of commitment.
There’s a famous saying in Europe about studying abroad that goes, “Studying abroad isn’t a year in the life, it’s a life in a year.” There’s no better way to put it. Your life abroad will be a new life for you, and you have to be willing to let go of a lot of the things you are most attached to back home. Before you go abroad, you have to be willing to let go of some commitments, in order to make room for new ones, and you have to be willing to go with the flow so that you can let the new culture change you, because there is no way that you’ll be changing the culture of the country. However, studying abroad is still the opportunity of a lifetime and you shouldn’t pass it down – just make sure you are prepared before you go!