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

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!

Moving to Study and Live Abroad: Why I Chose Europe for My Masters Degree

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

If everything goes according to plan with my Visa and class registration I’ll be starting my two year Masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in just under a Month.  Eager to get settled and begin the culture shock process I jumped the Atlantic and came over a bit early. So far I’ve got two weeks as a Danish resident under my belt and am starting to get my bearings.

While worlds apart I’ve found that the Danes and Arizonans have at least one thing in common.  When I tell them I’ve chosen to re-locate to Copenhagen I always get a quizzical look and the question, “Why Denmark?”.  Most follow the question up with “Why the University of Copenhagen?”, especially when they find out I passed up on an invitation from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to attend.

A lot of factors went into my decision making process and I’ll try and share some of them with you in this post in the hope that they help those of you facing similar decisions and perhaps offer insights into the process for everyone else.

The Application Process

In applying for Graduate programs I knew I didn’t need to return to Grad School. I had a good job, a great resume, decent job security, and a network that allowed me the luxury of turning down several jobs over the course of the recession. Simply put, I missed the academic environment and felt that there was significant potential to improve my social circle, resume, and future prospects with a return to academia.  Especially one that would allow me to work on my existing passions and projects while getting extra credit for them.  I studied lazily for a week for the GRE, took it and operated on the assumption that my resume and body of work would be far more valuable than test scores.  I also knew that the difference between a PhD and a Masters was significant, both in cost and weight so I decided to split my energy between the two.

To select the Schools I’d apply for I made a list of schools that I felt had a very respectable reputation and then pulled up several University lists and rankings.  With these lists in hand I made my way through them making note of the Universities which were in a location I’d be willing to move to and which ranked in the top 50-75 world wide. From there I researched the University’s list of programs and looked for schools with a Communication oriented program or something that would allow me to study social media, virtual worlds, and online education. It is important to note that the one consideration I didn’t take into account was my chances of getting accepted.  I didn’t need to go back, and so as a result the $75 application fee and $15 transcript fee was a small cost to pay for an application and the chance to explore my curiosity.

I was surprised that several of the schools I was most interested in (Harvard, Cambridge) didn’t have any programs remotely connected to the area I wanted to study.  On the opposite end of the spectrum others (Columbia, Edinburgh) had programs focused in my area, but which were taught exclusively online.  Something I wasn’t interested in despite that being one of my central areas of research. I wanted to improve online courses, not struggle through existing ones.

I also felt that it was important that I not fight the language barrier any more than I had to. So, I focused on researching Universities that had English based programs or were based in English speaking countries.  I was surprised at just how many Universities world wide offer courses and programs in English. They’re out there, the trick is finding them.

After doing my research (which took much longer than I expected), I ended up with a list of 8 Universities.  Of those I found 4 PhD programs and 4 Masters programs to apply to. I targeted faculty in the programs I was interested in and sent out a barrage of e-mails asking questions and introducing myself.

Though unorthodox I felt it was worth the effort to apply directly to a few PhD programs as they offered better financial support and would have provided an accelerated program.  Of the 8 Schools I applied to the 4 PhDs were Stanford, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington. The 4 Masters I applied to were Georgetown, University of Copenhagen, Oxford, and a joint program between University of Southern California and the London School of Economics.  Key elements in my application were strong statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, my undergraduate participation in Arizona State’s Barrett, The Honors College w/ Honors Thesis, my professional research and expertise, and my GRE scores which were mediocre with a 530 Math, 590 Verbal and a 5 on the Essay portion.

To make things more challenging I later learned that I had applied during one of, if not the hardest application cycles in the last 50 years.  Ultimately, I received compelling invitations from Georgetown and University of Copenhagen.  Both offered cities and experiences completely different from Arizona, storied histories, and excellent reputations.  However, where Georgetown was only able to offer student loans and $30,000 a year in tuition fees University of Copenhagen offered a complete tuition waiver.  After additional research I also learned that Copenhagen ranked 40th/45th on the lists of Global Universities which was significantly higher than Georgetown. Additionally, the University is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities which consists of 10 of the world’s leading academic institutions: Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Australian National University, Berkley, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, ETH Zurich.

This is when it became real. I wasn’t just enjoying fanciful dreams of applying at the major universities around the world. I was faced with a very compelling opportunity to actually live those dreams and see them brought to reality.  Frankly, it was absolutely terrifying.  That may shock some of you, as a veteran traveler and repeat solo traveler, but the prospect of a trip is vastly different than the prospect of 2 years in a foreign education system, in a alien country. Even the age of the University was mind boggling. University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 – keep in mind that Columbus didn’t even sail until 1492.

I wasn’t sure if I had the balls to do it. Then I thought through how much I regretted never spending a semester or year abroad during my undergrad, about how incredible the opportunity laid out before me was, and how fear aside it was something I truly wanted to do.  I fired off my letter of acceptance and began researching just what exactly I had signed up for.

The Role of Location and Culture

I moved to Arizona from Colorado when I was six.  I spent the next 18 years of my life in various parts of the state where I lived in Sedona, Prescott, Tempe and Scottsdale.  During that time I spent an additional two years on the road. The first was in place of 5th grade and was a year spent home schooled and backpacking with my parents through Europe. The second was in place of 7th grade and a year spent RVing and home schooled through the US.

The one thing all that time in Arizona taught me was that Arizona and I aren’t kindred spirits. The state has some incredible people, world class natural beauty and a bucket of potential. Unfortunately, it is also dominated by a world view and behavioral culture which is 180 degrees from me.  The state as a whole is anti-education, anti-intellectualism, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-humanism, anti-multiculturalism and the embodiment of what happens when you have 30 years of the GOP party line in action.  As someone who takes a strong humanistic approach to life, values education, curiosity and intellectual pursuits, isn’t religious, values science and history, has a global world view, relishes different cultures and fiscal responsibility Arizona left me miserable.  Outside of my group of friends I found myself surrounded by people who actively embraced and relished in waging war on everything I view as important and essential for progress, sound governance, and a healthy population.

Similarly, Arizona has absolutely zero long-term plan for economic development.  The State has been bleeding all of their top talent for years due to dreadful policies and their short sighted approach to business and education.  The job prospects and opportunities for people 25-45 in the state are nearly non-existent beyond the basic service industries or a job with Intel, and the chances of that changing any time soon in the current environment are non-existent.

So, when it came time to relocate for my Masters I knew I wanted a destination that would provide a community and culture that valued long-term thinking, that took a humanistic approach to life, which had significant potential for professional development and networking, as well as an area that put heavy emphasis on cultural and educational development.

With these criteria in mind the Scandinavian countries immediately jumped to the top of the list.  You’ve probably heard that Denmark (and Scandinavia at large) are some of the happiest countries in the world.  That’s with good reason.  They’ve spent the last 30 years investing heavily in education, infrastructure, health care and innovation while embracing a  humanistic approach to governance and policy.  To a person they are some of the best educated, friendly, helpful and least religious people in the world.

During my 18 day trip to Scandinavia in July of 2010 I was absolutely floored by how helpful, friendly, and genuine the Norwegians and Danes I met were.  Their willingness to have a conversation, answer questions, and to look out for each other was refreshing.  As was the ease I found when seeking out stimulating conversations that were based in well educated, global perspective and insight.  In the three days I spent in Copenhagen during that trip I fell in love with the city and developed an incredible respect for the Danish people.  That feeling and experience has only been magnified over the past two weeks as I’ve gotten settled and worked to navigate the city.

The city itself is a perfect reflection of its people.  With beautiful ancient architecture the city is clean, well laid out, has a great public transportation system, is lined with canals that nearly rival Amsterdam, and is one of the greatest biking cities I’ve ever experienced.  Some 36% of the population commutes to work by bicycle every day. Despite being an ancient city, efforts have been taken to clean up the harbor and river system and the water in the inner harbor is so clean it is safe for swimming.  The coast is decorated by massive wind turbines, and the general feeling is one of an ancient city that is retaining its spirit and essence while charging into the future.

A Global Network

Ultimately one of the biggest resources in life is your social and professional network. It is what drives a successful career, business venture, and makes for a rich and informative personal network.  I developed an incredible network of friends, peers, and professional contacts during my time in Arizona many of whom have since re-located further diversifying the information they can share and the insights they are able to offer.  But, I knew that to truly live the life I want to live I need a network of friends and professional contacts who are truly global and as diverse as the places they were born, educated and raised.  I knew that that by relocating either abroad or to one of the coasts that I’d be exposed to a completely different mixture of people to share, collaborate, relax, learn from and explore with.

The opportunity to live, study, and socialize abroad offers me an chance to develop an entirely new network from the ground up, while maintaining the existing networks I cherish. It provides me the opportunity to radically re-structure the aspects of society I engage with regularly, as well as the cultures, nationalities, and professional backgrounds of my peer group all in a way which wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the same region and the same communities I’ve spent the last 20 years in.

So, Why Denmark?

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer.  We’ll see how I feel about the decision as I start my classes and start to integrate into the local culture and truly see it as a local instead of just a visitor.  That said, it’s amazing to be surrounded by wonderful people who truly seem to understand the importance of charting a path forward, of looking toward the horizon and of embracing new information and relishing it, not trying to quash or discredit it.  I’ll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being surrounded by people who don’t live their lives believing the earth is 6,000 years old and that corporations will always have their best interests at heart.

I’ll be continuing to write on the experiences, revelations, and lessons learned during this adventure so stay tuned. Also, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wondered about or a challenge in your own process don’t hesitate to reach out.

Interested in doing more research? Consider browsing Amazon’s assorted titles on Denmark or Study Abroad.