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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!