Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

Men, It Is Long Past Time to Study Abroad

The Scottish Perch

Despite these massive surges in the number of students studying abroad, it turns out the majority of western exchange students are women. This has left educators and study abroad students alike asking themselves, “Where are the men?”

The study abroad population is increasing rapidly. Over the past ten years the number of students studying abroad has nearly doubled. In 1996‐7 there were 99,448 US undergrads studying abroad. Fourteen years later, in 2011, that number grew to 273,996; almost three times the amount. Meanwhile, the ERASMUS (European) exchange program increased from 144,037 students in 2004-5 to 252,827 for the 2011-12 academic year; almost doubling over a seven-year period.

Existing research has found that roughly two thirds of American exchange students are female, while data for Europe indicates that on average, 65% of the study abroad population is comprised of women. In some countries, such as Romania and Poland, 71% and 68% respectively of exchange students are female (These figures and others are explored in-depth in my Master’s thesis).

While this should concern everyone, it should be especially disconcerting for men as it means that a huge slice of the male population is missing out on the life and perspective-changing experiences that come from study abroad.  In our global economy, men that fail to study abroad will be significantly less competitive than their female counterparts and they will make decisions based on a highly limited world view.

What I find concerning is just how little specialized information is available for men.  We have developed a western cultural narrative that assumes that travel is inherently more dangerous and challenging for women, and that as a result it is women that need to be the primary focus and recipients of the resources dedicated to encouraging young people to travel. While I whole-heartedly embrace resources that support and inspire young women to travel I also know that young men have been neglected. In our rush to enable and empower young women we have overlooked and failed to address the very real needs of young men.  As a result their significant fears have not been addressed,  and the special set of challenges they face have been ignored or dismissed as insignificant.

1. Men, it’s time to admit we are afraid

Western society has clear rules for what it expects from males.  Machismo/masculine culture is drilled into us from before we can walk.  To be a man it is essential that we be strong, resilient, independent, and self sufficient. We’re told on a daily basis, “Man up“, “Get things done“, “Don’t be a sissy“, and  “It’ll be fine, just rub some dirt on it“.   A failure to do so not only feels like an internal failing, but quite often has very real social costs among our peers and with women.  For many of us, we learn at an early age that it is better to feign apathy than admit that we need help.  Admitting fear is acceptable, kinda, but only if it’s delivered in combination with arrogance and mastery.  While these cultural norms provide men with a set of skills and an internal drive that can be a huge asset, it also opens us up to a lot of harm and missed opportunities. We go to the doctor less, we act out to distract people from things that make us uncomfortable, we fail to ask questions in class, and in the case of study abroad – we scrap, delay, or abandon exploring study abroad all together. There are some great resources out there dedicated to facilitating improved conversation in this area and improving cross-gender discussions when it comes to how to interact. One is The Good Men Project, which has awesome posts like “Why We as Women Need to Ease Up On Men,” and “What If He Cries?” but these projects are few and far between with little-to-no tie to travel or study abroad.

Over the past decade I’ve struggled with overcoming my own fears, embracing the study abroad experience, traveling independently, and simultaneously been involved in encouraging more people to study and go abroad.  As I reflect on the conversations I had in the lead-up to both my six week summer study abroad trip in 2004 and the two-year full degree Master’s program I recently completed in Denmark, I find myself confident that one of the primary reasons there are so few of us studying abroad is because … it is scary.

The risk of lost social capital is significant, and there are virtually no resources available for men to help us address our fears. If you google, “Is it dangerous for men to travel alone?” of the 10 results on the first page, three are gender neutral, and seven are for women despite the search terms used. Similarly, when reading up on solo travel and travel in general, guides are written in gender neutral language or almost exclusively for female travelers. A prime example of this is the BBC’s recent piece “Should women avoid solo travel?.” This is a fantastic piece but, it drives home the point that there is a massive void when it comes to resources for men. Simply put, it implies a culture where men are the dominant travelers and can take care of themselves. While this is deeply ingrained in virtually all of us, myself included, this is a myth.

The reality is that we are every bit as scared of studying abroad as women.  In some cases even more so, because we lack outlets to ask questions and to get re-assurance that our fears are acceptable and common place.  Preparing for and embarking on a study abroad or solo travel trip is something that inherently relies on seeking out exterior information.  You need to find resources, do your research, and ask questions so you know what to expect. This involves admitting what you don’t know, and accepting that you have a bag full of rational and irrational fears that must be addressed.  It is informative to watch men’s faces during a study abroad information session and the look of muted relief that sweeps over them when one of the guys finally steps forward and asks a question they’ve all been itching to know, but were afraid to ask; to risk being judged harshly or appearing overly soft.

We also have to accept and work to improve the support network available to most young men.  While many women are able to share their fears and uncertainties about study abroad with family and friends, it is often a much more guarded discussion for men. Relatively simple things such as a fear of foreign foods, or having to navigate and use buses, trains and planes, are often the types of topics that many men will only discuss with their closest friends at the end of a long night full of beer.

It is important that young men understand that there is nothing shameful about these fears. We do not have to be completely self-sufficient. We can admit our uncertainty.  The alternative is that we find excuses, miss deadlines, or dismiss study abroad as something that we don’t have time for leading us to miss out on an incredibly important life experience.   Those organizing and running study abroad programs must become more pro-active in their efforts to reach and engage young men while realizing that the stoic and self-reliant mask they present covers a boiling mass of uncertainty and layers upon layers of rationalizations and excuses.

2. Added dangers exist for men

Study abroad and solo travel are, in general, extremely safe.  In reality they are often far safer than an identical period of time spent at home, especially if you’re from a major metropolitan area.  That being said, there are some added concerns that are worth being mindful of, particularly because study abroad and solo travel usually include large amounts of alcohol and bar culture. When discussing study abroad and solo travel safety, the present discussion revolves almost entirely around women’s safety and risk of kidnapping and rape.  While these concerns are extremely relevant and valuable, the temptation to assume that men have it easy is misleading and a disservice to the discussion.

One area that is rarely discussed, but much on the minds of young men, is the threat of fights while abroad.  I suspect that this is due in part because our cultural ‘mancode’ dictates that a man that is involved in a fight and loses will be eager to keep the details to himself, while a man that is involved in a fight and wins will be automatically assumed to be the aggressor and somehow responsible for the fight. This places men in a difficult no-win position, and one which encourages silence and the avoidance of the topic all together similar to what researchers have documented when exploring the reporting of domestic violence.

I’m a tall guy, and while that often works to my advantage in discouraging confrontation, it also makes me a target. Despite that, I’ve never been engaged in a direct confrontation that escalated beyond a push or two while living and traveling in more than 40 countries.  That being said, small confrontations and the threat of violence are a relatively normal part of a night out and/or bar culture. While I’ve managed to avoid major conflicts, the sight of guys at hostels sporting a black eye or bruised lip isn’t exactly an uncommon one.  While I think these incidents are less common while studying abroad than at home, men face a significantly increased risk of being assaulted compared to their female counterparts.  This risk is compounded dramatically in social and club situations where men are expected to serve as a buffer and safe zone for their female counterparts when they find they’re tired of dancing, talking to a guy, or want a break.

The risk of sexual assault and of getting drugged, while dramatically reduced compared to women, is still present and a very real risk. I know numerous men who have been drugged for a variety of reasons which ranged from exploitation, to robbery, to sexual assault, and perhaps most commonly, by other men interested in removing competition. While, thankfully, I have never experienced any of those, I have been aggressively grabbed and groped by both men and women more often than I care to recall.

Again, I want to reiterate that most of these threats are the same exact threats we would face and experience in bars in our home cities.  As someone who did my undergraduate program in Phoenix, Arizona, I find that most of my time spent studying/living/traveling abroad is dramatically safer. But, if we want more men to study abroad, we need to discuss these risks and threats in the same way we treat those posed to women.

3. Study abroad – Not just hookups and adventure sports

We live in a media culture that has made the study abroad experience the near exclusive domain of romantic comedies and chick flicks.  From an early age women grow up on stories depicting deeply charming and romantic travel experiences in far off and exotic places.  They are encouraged to see study abroad as an opportunity to seek love, to enjoy incredible food, and to immerse themselves in art, music, and culture.

For heterosexual men the cultural message is far less engaging and not nearly as compelling.  While there are messages to go abroad these often depict men already settled into their careers.  Other alternatives tell us that travel internationally should revolve around sex with exotic internationals (eg: Eurotrip) or the pursuit of adrenaline-fueled activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, and downhill snowboarding (which are hardly study-centric activities).

The message we get is fairly clear:  Study abroad is only kinda, sorta, maybe for men and even then only high-testosterone adrenaline addicts or head-in-the-clouds whimsical lit-nerds. Those messages are complete and absolute pigswill.  Study abroad is for everyone. Seriously. Everyone.

4. It won’t jeopardize your career

As men, we experience a significant amount of familial and cultural pressure to start our careers and to focus on career-related activities from day one.  Travel is conveyed as something to be done after we complete our studies and succeed. For those with a passion for travel, it is implied that we should find a career that includes large amounts of business travel and use it as our platform for discovering the world.

Again, this is grossly inaccurate and something that is starting to change. Already employers report that they are looking for candidates that have international experience and have studied or traveled abroad over an extended period of time.  This is because they feel that those who have tend to be more adaptable, flexible, able to live effectively in a variety of cultural contexts. In many ways, study abroad is becoming an essential component of the undergraduate experience – on par with taking on a student internship.  It teaches many of the same skills, while also honing a student’s self confidence, independence, and global perspective.  Study abroad matures individuals and builds improved resilience and character while diversifying the student’s world view.

Where many men have historically bypassed study abroad out of financial concerns, or fear of lost opportunities to network or add work experience to their resumes, employers are increasingly viewing study abroad as a key sign of employability.  So, while this in no way means that young men should choose study abroad in place of an internship or career development opportunity, the two should be explored in tandem.  Outdated perceptions that study abroad was a sign of a student escaping from academic work, or taking an academic vacation are now out of date and have largely been abandoned. So much so that we are starting to see many university programs incorporating mandatory exchange periods as part of their curriculum.

Long story short: Men, if you don’t want to blow your future, it’s time to study abroad.

5. Socializing isn’t easy

Depending on where you sit on the nature/nurture debate you can attribute men’s social behaviors to a variety of different sources. Regardless, at the end of the day we tend to be less social than our female counterparts.  This can make establishing new social networks and connections particularly challenging and nerve-wracking when debating the prospect of study abroad.

If you are shy and one of the primary things holding you back is a fear that you won’t be able to make new friends during your exchange, don’t worry.  Travel is an incredible tool for breaking out of your shell and developing new friendships and conversational abilities.  Even if you suffer brutal social anxiety, the opportunity to experiment, explore, and reach out to a peer group of students who are in the same boat, and locals who are deeply curious about where you are from and why you chose their city, is invaluable.

As men we need to be honest with ourselves, accept that we’re not all natural athletes looking to join sports clubs or die-hard Magic the Gathering gamers. We have to accept that socializing while abroad is a huge fear for many guys as they consider taking a trip and re-affirm that while it won’t be easy, it won’t be as difficult or brutally uncomfortable as we might fear. Sure, there will be nights spent alone on Facebook, but far more often you’ll have a group of fellow exchange students with much more in common with you than a group of people 100 times the size back home.

6. Parental support

In conversations with female friends it has become apparent to me that the playing field isn’t equal when it comes to parental support for travel and study abroad. While the student need and benefit from study abroad is equal regardless of gender, there are far too many cases where financial and social support from parents is decidedly lopsided.  While I’ve been very lucky and had folks that prioritized travel, I have many peers who have found that where their parents were willing to support and pay for their daughters to study abroad, there were decidedly different levels of support and social pressures placed on their sons.  It’s impossible to know how much of this stems from cultural norms and expectations that young men should be able to support and provide for themselves, and how much of it is simply based in young women being more vocal about how important study abroad is to them.  I’m in no way implying or seeking to lessen the efforts of the countless women who go about researching, pursuing, and financing their study abroad all on their own.  I’m simply noting observations I’ve had shared by men and women alike, that while women often have to make a stronger case for their safety when seeking parental support, that support, particularly financially, tends to be more available for women than men.

7. The money is out there

Unfortunately, study abroad isn’t cheap.  While every penny invested is 100% worth it, it’s true that a solo trip done on the cheap can run you about half the cost of a study abroad exchange.  Of course, the tradeoff is that you don’t receive the academic credits, and you miss out on opportunities for scholarships, grants, and funding. When weighing the options available to you, you should keep in mind that because study abroad is typically based in one or two centralized locations you will get a much better feeling for the community and culture as opposed to typical budget travel which covers 10-15 times as many destinations. Also consider that each type of study abroad is different, just as study abroad and general travel are different.  For added discussion on the topic see my post exploring long vs. short term study abroad here.

Lastly, it is extremely important that men be pro-active in pursuing scholarships, tuition waivers, and financial aid for study abroad opportunities.  While this is more relevant for American, Canadian, British and Australian readers, it is equally relevant for European readers who may seek to supplement the ERASMUS fee.  There are a wealth of resources available to help you make your study abroad experience possible, you will just need to seek them out and be pro-active in asking for the funds.  Again, this all comes down to asking for help often, and in a wide variety of places.

Final thoughts

Recent growth in study abroad is exciting and representative of how the world is changing as new technologies continue to reduce costs, bridge communication barriers, and provide new opportunities for self discovery and exploration.   Men benefit immensely from the study abroad experience. More than that though, it is of the utmost importance that we strive for relative equal representation within the study abroad community because both genders have so much to contribute. The chance to explore the world, cultures, and foods as part of a group not only creates a more well-rounded exchange experience, it provides a significantly safer one.

As we push forward, it is important that we all do our part to re-frame the discussion surrounding men, study abroad, and independent travel.  The challenges young men face are not limited to their own decisions and experiences. They are representative of the sum of the cultural messages and resources that shape the study abroad environment. It is up to all of us to help create a more supportive and transparent dialogue that helps young men feel comfortable and capable when exploring study abroad options.

We also need to change the way we handle and discuss these types of posts. In researching this post, I discussed the topic with a number of other male peers and bloggers. Many expressed agreement that the topic needed to be addressed, but felt as though any attempt to do so would immediately be met with aggression, allegations of sexism, or seen as an attempt to belittle the challenges and gains women have made in higher education and study abroad over the past few decades. This is not my intention and I know there are large groups of women who are every bit as concerned by the gender gap as I am and working doggedly to help bridge it. Still, I publish this post with some apprehension.

It would be fantastic if men who have made the jump and chosen to study abroad or embark on a solo travel trip would share some of their own stories, their experiences, and their fears in bridging the gap between the concept of going abroad and the reality of making it happen.


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!