Living Abroad

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

22 Comments

  • wandering educators
    August 18, 2011

    excellent points, alex, and definitely something to think about. my family (very close) has always encouraged us to explore the world – that’s made all the difference, for me!

    Reply
  • Heather
    August 18, 2011

    As someone who tends to shudder at the thought of chaperoned, pre-planned student group trips, I wouldn’t necessarily add that ‘support’ as a pro of short-term study abroad for myself. That being said, even with the year-long study abroad I did at the University of Edinburgh, housing (once the school year began), tuition, and paperwork was organized by a third-party program, and it definitely makes things easier. But I think one would (as you will, no doubt, at Copenhagen) gain greater appreciation and understanding of the school and what it takes to get yourself enrolled in it. I feel that almost anything you can do yourself is going to make the experience richer and make you feel more empowered. But that’s just my take and I know it would probably be way too overwhelming for many people to deal with all the technicalities in addition to the new environment and people.

    But good article! Hopefully will be helpful for students debating on whether to take a smaller step or go all out. I also like the third picture down..where was that taken?

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 19, 2011

      Yeah, it definitely depends on the person’s past travel experience, general travel confidence, and willingness to be pro-active and flexible. I wasn’t sure how they handled year-long programs, but it sounds fairly similar to more short term programs just with an extended stay/duration. Were your courses taught on a credit hour basis or ECTS system?

      Thanks for the great post Heather!

      PS. Third photo down is one of my favorites. Bergen Norway just behind the warehouses.

      Reply
      • Heather
        August 21, 2011

        They were based on credit hours, but transferred in such a way back to ASU that I got pretty jipped of credits. A year of 200-level Spanish classes were accepted by ASU as one semester of the 100-level courses….all my year courses ended being counted as single-semester classes. Not that I’m complaining too much because it all worked out, but it is something to be aware of.

        Reply
        • Alex Berger
          August 22, 2011

          Ouch, what nonsense! Was it an opportunity coordinated independently or through ASU? If through ASU that’s pretty ridiculous.

          Reply
  • Ohai Thar
    August 19, 2011

    I would have hoped that you’d learn another lesson: what you are doing is not all that special. Movng to another place and getting set up is just what foreign students do – it’s what all the foreign students you saw as an undergraduate did. It’s not necessarily all that enlightening, just the daily grind.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 20, 2011

      Sure, it’s what every foreign student did but it is completely different than the typical college experience. It’s also a tiny, tiny minority of students that go through the process and the process and the realizations and lessons you learn while going through that are very special and very enlightening. That’s one of the primary benefits of study abroad.

      Reply
      • Ohai Thar
        August 20, 2011

        Thanks for your response! I suppose it is different from the typical college experience, but I don’t find it particularly enlightening. I’m in the third year of my phd at a foreign university (in the usa), and I haven’t had any realisations or lessons, really. Honestly, I came for the university, and it just happened to be in a foreign country.

        I suppose one benefit of your article is that it should show all those who go on about how they “lived in France for awhile” after an organised 1-semester study abroad how ridiculous they are being…

        Reply
  • Annie
    August 19, 2011

    You have made some really great points here. I have to say that I can’t speak objectively about all sides of study abroad based on my personal experience but I have a bit of insight into a few different aspects.

    I personally studied as an exchange student, meaning that I had very little advice or help from any advisors or anyone else for that matter. I also studied in Australia, an English-speaking country, meaning it was all around easier for me to adjust to life in a new place.

    I worked in Italy with study abroad students and I was sad to see how little effort most of them put into learning the local language and culture because their programs were so ‘supportive’ and their time in the country was viewed as short. Even in the travel agency I worked for the students expected that we baby them and lead them around from place to place in each city, never making any attempts to speak in Italian to anyone.

    In my opinion I was able to gain a much greater appreciation for travel and I learned much more from my study abroad. Not all, but many of the students I worked with in Florence were quite happy to return to the US falling right back into the “American Dream” and travel only far in the future when they find the time. Their experiences abroad will be filed away with the rest of their college memories. I know this because many of them have told me their plans of staying home for a while.

    I think that even if it may be hard at times the amount of experience and knowledge that you can gain from participating in a program that makes you take the initiative hugely outweighs the difficulty. I know that not everyone’s dream is to travel but wouldn’t it be nice if people came away from a semester abroad with more knowledge of the world instead of just an expanded waistline that they can’t wait to get home and conquer? Hey, that was the general concern with students in Italy anyway.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 20, 2011

      Annie, fantastic comments and insights. Thank you! I agree, it’s so easy to fall into what is comfortable and to build on other students avoidance of the uncomfortable. That’s one of the perks of really getting outside your comfort zone, it forces you to get out there and to do something different which is where so much of the richness comes.

      I do think, and hope that those experiences forever change those people even if not on the level one might hope. Even the increased awareness of what is out there will slowly alter the cousre of their lives.

      Reply
  • Cam @ Traveling Canucks
    August 22, 2011

    Nicole did a 5 month program in Malaysia in 2004 (which I tagged along for) and really enjoyed the experience – great way to fully immerse yourself into a city and its culture. We still keep in contact with a few of the other students. Good luck with the program!

    Reply
  • FutureExpat
    August 27, 2011

    Excellent! I’ll look forward to your continuing reports over the next couple of years.

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      August 28, 2011

      Thanks for reading! If there’s ever anything specific you’re curious about feel free to let me know!

      Reply
  • Donna Hull
    September 27, 2011

    I am enjoying following your journey, Alex. Looking forward to reading more. Good luck!

    Reply
  • Men, It Is Long Past Time to Study Abroad
  • Ash
    November 21, 2016

    Hi Alex, you’ve pointed out the differences well. It’s a subjective choice after all and one needs to be well aware of the results before making the decision.

    Reply
  • Farhana
    April 10, 2017

    Hi Alex,

    A lot of your experiences mirrored mine when I had the opportunity to study abroad for 1.5 years. While I had my sister’s support since she was living in the same state (I chose that particular state to be closer to my sister as that was the only time I could really bond with her and her family), I struggled with the different educational system and the social restart for a while. But the experience broadened my worldview and played an important role in shaping who I am today! I hope you’re doing well in Copenhagen!

    Reply
    • Alex Berger
      April 13, 2017

      It’s definitely quite a challenge! But it really does make you into a different and better person! Copenhagen continues to go wonderfully. A few more months and I’ll pass the 6 year mark here.

      Reply

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