Studying Abroad: Reasons, Challenges & Tips

Studying Abroad: Reasons, Challenges & Tips
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Studying abroad is an opportunity that can pay off dividends to an individual beyond the school years. Apart from the learnings from coursework, the prospective foreign student will receive myriad benefits outside the classroom. Assuming that requirements for eligibility and financial capability have been hurdled, the student gets an opportunity to expand personal horizons that are not available locally.

Committing to a multi-year study abroad presents numerous challenges. Knowing the advantages of international education, especially when weighed against perceived challenges, can help prospective students to make an informed decision on whether to study abroad and where. This article aims to present an overall picture of both benefits and challenges to studying abroad.

Studying Abroad Table of Contents

  1. Studying Abroad Takes Preparation
  2. Advantages of Studying Abroad
  3. Challenges of Studying Abroad
  4. Top Destinations for Study Abroad Students
  5. Tips for Studying Abroad

Studying Abroad Takes Preparation

Study abroad (SA) students are not always linguistically and culturally prepared to take full advantage of learning opportunities. Apart from potential language and cultural barriers, students can also find it difficult to integrate themselves with their host community. One reason for this is because the goal of foreign students today is moving away from learning languages and towards programs in other fields of study.

In 2014, only 5% of all American SA students took up courses in world languages (IIE, 2014). The rest are enrolled in STEM fields (23%), social sciences (22%), business courses (20), humanities (10%), fine or applied arts (8%), and others (12%). This tends to deemphasize the need for language and culture studies and an automatic assumption that English will be used as the medium of communication (Goldoni, 2015).

Source: Goldoni (2015)

Advantages of Studying Abroad

Why study abroad in the first place? There are plenty of reasons to study abroad as its benefits go beyond what the students learn in a foreign classroom. Being in a new environment that is culturally distinct, plus a chance to interact with the host community and fellow foreign students, presents opportunities that cannot be found in a local setting. Students who participated in a study abroad program have either a perceived strong impact in their lives, including civic engagement, knowledge production, philanthropy, and social entrepreneurship in relation to the participants’ current job. In addition, some students also said that studying abroad influenced them to continue their education into graduate school (Jenny et al, 2017).

1. It expands cultural understanding

Viewpoints are often limited to a person’s environment, and studying abroad provides students a chance to see things from a different perspective. This is not meant to challenge or change the student’s beliefs entirely but provides a chance to see things from the other side and develop empathy. Researchers noted that studying abroad increases cultural awareness and knowledge of diverse beliefs, living conditions, and customs (Chieffo and Griffiths, 2008). For those who were able to do so, improvements were seen in areas of intercultural sensitivity, acceptance of new cultural norms, and how other cultures are viewed.

2. It broadens personal experiences

College students, especially freshmen who may be living on their own in a different city or state for the first time, are often exposed to new activities and traditions. However, while these experiences are different from what they are used to, these experiences can be quite familiar.

On the other hand, staying in a foreign location for an extended period of time takes a student completely out of his or her comfort zone. It immerses students in a culture different from their own and allows them to be creative in adapting to it. In addition, students pick up valuable life skills such as learning to live independently and manage daily activities like budgeting, shopping, cleaning, etc.

3. It improves foreign language skills

Learning a new language will always be a major benefit for everybody. Studying abroad provides the right environment and the motivation to learn a new language. Being surrounded by local people who speak the language the student is trying to learn helps reduce anxiety while practicing. In addition, enhancements to both writing skills and listening are heightened when studying abroad.

4. It enhances educational experiences

Jenny et al. (2017) showed that study abroad students showed improved studying habits and developed confidence in taking on tasks. Academically, students who study abroad show an increase in their grade point average after studying abroad when compared to their peers who had not studied abroad. Results of a student self-assessment survey and faculty observations indicated that study abroad students experienced an increase in intellectual development in terms of self-confidence and self-reliability in class, as well as an increase in students’ abilities to understand meaningful connections across inter-cultural contexts (Ingraham & Peterson, 2004).

5. It increases future employment prospects

Foreign study graduates often impress employers with their global perspective and their unique understanding of people from different cultures. As such, they are the best prospects for jobs that deal with a lineup of international business partners and executives. In fact, the results of the 2011 QS Global Employer Survey revealed that six out of 10 employers often give extra credit for students with international experience. The same study also mentions that some of the industries seeking international graduates include Energy (71%), Travel and Hospitality (64%), Electronics and Technology (64%), Consulting and Professional Services (63%), and Fast-Moving Consumer Goods companies (63%) (Molony, Sowter, & Potts, 2011).

In addition to the demand for international students in different sectors, SA students also have the advantage of having a multicultural experience and knowledge of diverse beliefs, living conditions, and customs. In addition, those who studied abroad are more prepared to engage in the global marketplace.

Source: QS Global Employer Survey

6. It teaches self-reliance and increases self-efficacy

If going to a local university helps a student learn independence, imagine what studying abroad can accomplish. Going on an extended stay in a foreign country alone will teach international students to become self-reliant. A 2017 Study International article reported that students who studied abroad are more likely to be resilient and possess higher levels of confidence in their capabilities. Compared to those who were locally educated, these students were found to be more independent and possessed higher levels of self-efficacy. They are better able to deal with stress, are more likely to successfully reach their goals, and have higher levels of life satisfaction (Study International, 2017).

7. It opens up opportunities for travel

Travel is a very welcome side effect of being a student in a foreign land. No matter where the school is located, opportunities for travel to new places tend to increase. For example, a student stationed somewhere in Europe can use a free weekend to visit nearby countries and learn more about the different cultures in the continent. For students in less expansive areas, regular jaunts within the entire breadth of the host country are very feasible and highly encouraged.

Challenges of Studying Abroad

Studying abroad has its perks but it also has its own set of challenges. Jenny et al. (2015) listed a number of major concerns for studying abroad, including homesickness. being too far away from family, course requirements of existing curriculum, finances, language and cultural barriers, and health and dietary issues. While some of these hurdles are inevitable, it is important for foreign students to learn more about these challenges so they may better prepare for them.

1. Homesickness 

Homesickness figured largely in students who already studied abroad, with many admitting difficulties coping with living alone in a foreign land. The absence of a readily-available support system, such as an immediate family member often affects first-timers to the study abroad program. UNESCO reported that in 2019, 1 million foreign students studied in the UnS. Among these students, 92% say that they miss the familiarities of home while studying overseas, with 57% saying it is the sensory experience they miss most, while 74% specifying they miss the sounds of their hometown.

Overall, 99% of foreign students confirmed their decision to study abroad turned out to be a positive experience. There were, however, some difficulties adjusting to the new environment. 43% reported feeling homesick at least once a week. In addition, 49% believe that not having family and friends made an impact on their academic performance and 40% say homesickness affected their sleep. The survey also found out that the strongest feelings of homesickness is particularly prominent late at night from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. (HSBC, 2019).

Home Sick Home

What Foreign Students Miss When They Get Homesick

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Source: HSBC

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2. Course requirements of existing curriculum

Some students see studying abroad as a stumbling block to their current academic progress. This usually concerns adolescents who have already programmed the shortest course to graduate from their chosen major. Concerns that spending a semester or more abroad can delay their progress is cited as a reason to refuse study abroad opportunities to travel abroad. In addition, they fear being required to take subjects that may not be counted towards their course (Goldstein & Kim, 2006; Thirolf, 2014).

3. Language and cultural barriers

International students face a host of academic concerns as well as cultural and language barriers, especially during their first few months. Academics, in particular, is bound to suffer unless students hurdle the language and cultural context. Foreign students who are not proficient in English are usually offered assistance through additional language courses, but often the structure of these lessons is not designed to deal with the academic requirements.

In a survey of international students in the U.K., 50 % experienced difficulty in meeting the required standard of English to follow their courses. Meanwhile, 43% said their overall education and grades were affected by language barriers and 30% of students had to switch from their main courses to English language courses. Cultural barriers also made a negative impact on students’ abilities to develop academics and language. The same survey reported that 17% of students said cultural differences did not affect their education compared to 40% who said they are very much affected by the difference (Bukhari, 2015).

4. Financial difficulties

The cost of studying abroad can be steep. Unless they belong to the wealthy class, international students often face financial difficulties during the course of their education. Understandably, tuition fees are much more expensive for them compared to local courses. In addition to school requirements, adapting to a host country such as managing daily activities and participating in local cultural events may require additional expenses. Supplemental income may be difficult as foreign students with strict study-only visas are usually not allowed to work outside the campus. These may be the reasons why adequate financial resources were listed as one of the top adjustment issues faced by study abroad students (Wajid, 2017).

5. Dietary and health issues

Similar to housing, international students have a profound emotional need for food that is not only filling but familiar as well. Educators have acknowledged the importance of good, familiar food in the overall experience of the visiting student. This may be especially true for students who follow strict dietary laws including kosher, halal, or even vegetarian. Anthropologist Erika Stewin delved on the concept of food insecurity among foreign students in two Canadian universities and found out that: “Many students described experiencing food insecurity, which can be defined as a temporary or ongoing inability to access healthy and preferable foods that allow one to live a functional life…Students related feelings of depression, homesickness and identity loss, hunger, difficulties with weight loss or weight gain, and stories of being forced to compromise religious beliefs in order to eat” (ICEF, 2020).

Physical and mental health-wise, international students were reported to smoke or use drugs more frequently and were more likely to be classified as problem gamblers than domestic students. Despite having the same levels of general psychological distress, study stress, or financial stress as locals, international students were less likely to report seeking help for a mental health problem, a relationship problem, or an alcohol/substance use problem (Skromanis et al, 2018).

Top Destinations for Study Abroad Students

Students might find themselves overwhelmed when choosing where to study abroad. Considerations are given to selecting schools that offer the same subjects needed to complete a course. It is a matter of checking with their local university if credits from the host school will be accepted. Outside of school credentials, the host country is also a big factor. Students often look for desired traits in the target community, including culture, transport options, cost of living, social life, and sometimes even weather and food.

The local language should also be a primary consideration, as both education and daily living will be heavily dependent on the ability to communicate with the locals. Statista shared the top 2019 destinations for study abroad students in 2019. Unsurprisingly, four of the top five preferred countries that are English speaking. The only non-English country, China, is home to a language spoken by 1.2 billion people.

Source: Statista

Tips for Studying Abroad

Previous to enrolling in a program abroad, students must be able to assess their educational priorities and realistically gauge their capabilities to mount a prolonged stay overseas. This is not limited to financial capacity, but should also have an honest take on the mental preparedness to study in a different system under a different culture, and possibly using a different language.

Once a student makes the decision to push through with studying abroad, preparations should be undertaken as soon as possible to ensure a smooth transition. The usual pieces of advice range from the practical to the social and includes the following: getting familiar with the local community (including commuting, places of interest, and supply centers), develop an adaptable budget, and maintain a reliable communication system back home. Below are additional and equally valuable insights that can help students make the most of their limited time studying abroad.

1. Know the host school and its rules

It is natural for foreign students to want to know more about their host country, the culture, and its people. In the excitement to do so, however, students sometimes forget to scout the host school. Outside of the brochures and online reviews, students are encouraged to take a closer look at their chosen university and gather information on how to best maximize their stay. In addition, it is also prudent to check how the host university’s system works. This includes getting to knowing the university ideals, organizational structure, grading system, and hierarchy, which can help students understand better and manage their expectations (Mountford-Zimdars & Soffe, 2018).

2. Check the validity of college credits

For all the work to be done while studying abroad, getting the requisite college credits should be the major end result. Taking pains to ensure the validity of your earned credits should happen before studying abroad, as once the program starts, it will be very difficult to reverse course.

A good starting point would be to align your current course with your study program. Students should check with both the study abroad office and the registrar’s office of the home college to see if they will award study abroad course credit from the former. Even if the answer is yes, the student should still submit a detailed list of all the classes for enrollment and have each approved for credit. As much as possible, the student should secure an official document attesting to the fact (Lessig, 2016). Assuming all the above has been worked out, it also pays to check with the home government (Education ministry) if they will accept these credits as valid in future licensure applications.

3. Check the university rankings

For more competitive students, getting accepted into top-ranking universities is an achievement in itself. While it may be easy to pick a famous school based on popularity alone, the evaluation should go deeper than that. Plenty of organizations have devised ranking systems that list the top colleges and universities worldwide. As these organizations use different metrics, students can choose which metric is closest to their objectives and use them as their basis. There are at least four university ranking systems that are currently popular: Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Shanghai University Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS World University Rankings, and U.S. News Global Universities Rankings (Becheru, 2019).

top universities for study abroad students

4. Look up student support resources 

The international center is a great starting point for foreign students upon arrival at the host university. This office provides information on everything a newbie will need to navigate around campus. Apart from being an information kiosk, the international center often provides additional services, ranging from tutorial and translation assistance to first aid, and frontline counseling. If nothing else, other foreign students with the same concerns can usually be found here. As such, there is an opportunity for SA students to meet likeminded people and form new friendships.

Outside of the international office, students need to take time to learn the locations of other helpful centers: housing services, health center and counseling services, legal services, campus police, tutoring services, and writing/computer centers. There also many be offices that deal with travel grants, scholarship, and research opportunities (Mountford-Zimdars & Soffe, 2018).

5. Learn to network with locals and take notes

Studying abroad presents an opportunity for students to share their experiences with people back home. While it may be easier and more convenient to hang out with countrymen or fellow foreign students, it limits a student’s chance to learn more outside their home country. Attending events, parties or communal activities are ideal to meet other people and engage in cultural exchanges. Conversing with locals also provides practice opportunities to improve communication skills. Looking over student organizations and deciding which ones to join can also enrich a visiting student’s experience. Getting friends and acquaintances outside the classroom widens a person’s network substantially and can be helpful after graduation.

6. Ask for help

Foreign students should strive to reduce communication gaps, whether they are caused by language or culture. Students are highly encouraged to ask questions if there are parts of the coursework that are difficult to understand. Financial assistance centers and outreach groups are also available to receive those in need of assistance. Remember that choice of people to ask for help is not limited to the campus. A regular visit to the local embassy can help keep in touch with the homeland. If the student is leaning into religion, occasional trips to the local house of worship may help with spiritual needs.

7. Secure health insurance

Nothing is more frightening than getting sick away from home. Unless, it is one of those situations where the student is not insured, and the host country does not have universal health care. The United States is a prime example of a country where health care costs are very expensive.

Depending on the type of student visa issued, health insurance may or may not be mandatory (Lee, 2018). Regardless of visa type, students should include some type of health insurance in their planning, especially if they plan to stay in the U.S.

8. Get an international student ID (ISIC)

Carrying an acceptance national ID is standard for most countries, so imagine the inconvenience of not being able to produce a valid ID outside your hometown. International Student Identity Cards (ISIC) is a post World War II solution developed to provide foreign students with a valid and universally accepted form of identification. Students who purchase an ISIC will also receive numerous benefits, including free admission to exhibits and shows, discounts on purchases, or free items (ISIC, 2020).

Studying Abroad is a Golden Opportunity

Getting an education while simultaneously living under a different culture gives students an international perspective that can prove valuable in a global market. Even a short course or a semester studying abroad can bring long-term benefits to the student. As mentioned earlier, a sizable majority of study abroad students confirm that it was a life-enriching experience. Those considering seizing this opportunity must also be prepared for the challenges. These include not only getting ready to live in another country but also learning the inner workings of the school to be attended.

In order to maximize this opportunity, students should invest time and effort in preparing for a program. Studying at the host university as well as its home country’s culture and way of life can help ease the integration process. This can also reduce any misgivings arising from language or cultural issues.

Schools with study abroad programs should be more active in promoting these opportunities, even at the freshman level. Ideally, students should clear if the program’s study abroad course credits will be accepted in the home university. This can help assuage fears from students who do not want to miss out on graduating on time. Life-changing endeavors do not come without challenges. Studying abroad is in such a situation, where the reward of becoming a global citizen is possible only through the willingness to expand one’s boundaries.

 

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