A lesson from a study abroad alumni: Don’t overlook the “study” aspect of “study abroad!”
When I left for my study abroad program, I packed a huge suitcase full of various things I thought I’d need throughout the semester, most of which, I’m proud to say, I ended up using. (For packing advice, see: How to Pack a Semester in a Suitcase). However, I disregarded one very important aspect of my study abroad experience—the “study” aspect. When I say disregarded, I really mean forgot existed. I didn’t think to pack a single notebook, folder, or even a writing utensil for my semester in France. I was a studious college student; yet, I had completely forgotten about the fact that I would be in an academic setting because I was so distracted by all the other things there were to do in Europe.
I’ll be the first to admit that the abroad part of study abroad is the most exciting. You’re in a new place, with different people, old art, and memories to be made. Those are all reasons enough to cross an ocean. But you don’t want an exciting semester, or summer adventure, to make your life difficult on the academic end once you return home.
So that you all don’t enter a state of shock (like I did) once you realize you’re actually going to have to study, here are some things that might help you to prepare for your program abroad:
1) Think about the classes you will be taking
Different study abroad programs have different levels of course options. Try to choose courses that you know you’ll enjoy. If you’re taking core or general education courses, take classes in subject areas that come more easily to you. Not a math person? Take college algebra at your home institution and opt for Spanish 101 or art appreciation instead. Before you participate on a CISabroad program, you’ll be required to sit down with your academic advisor to get courses pre-approved. I suggest getting about twice the amount of courses approved as you would actually take abroad. That way you have some flexibility to easily change when you get there.
2) Be flexible to learn in a new way
You’re probably expecting the food, culture, people, and maybe even the language to be different, but keep in mind the style of learning and teaching may be very different as well. In some countries and some programs, instructors are simply a complement to your readings and assignments. In others, you’ll get the bulk of your information from the instructor and exams will be based largely off what was discussed in class. Some classes will take you out to experience what you’re learning about, especially in the case of local topics such as culture, art, and history. Others will feel more similar to a large lecture hall in which academic material is conveyed, not experienced. Ask friends or program alumni what they found to be different about the academic culture, and be flexible once you arrive to the different learning and teaching methods.
3) Take minimal hours
Yes, you need to be enrolled as a full-time student. But you don’t need to be enrolled as an overly-ambitious, 19-credit student during your time abroad. Take 12 hours or the equivalent, and then you’ll have more time to explore and travel. This doesn’t mean put minimal effort in these courses, but taking minimal hours means that you won’t spread yourself thin. It’s possible to perform well in your courses AND have a great experience. Also, you may be able to earn credit towards multiple requirements (e.g. a language requirement and an elective/gen ed). Upon returning, you’ll sit down with your academic advisor again to review the courses you took. Which may provide the opportunity to transfer one course into multiple requirements.
4) Know that academics are different everywhere
In some countries, university is taken much more seriously than in others. And the courses will reflect that. Do some research on where you will be going and what will be expected of you as a student so that there are no surprises once your classes begin. For example: in Australia, most of your grade rides on one final exam. This means that you can very easily slack off the whole semester, but that will likely leave you ill prepared for the exam. CISabroad programs are hosted at a variety of institutions, from large, prestigious universities to small, language and culture focused institutes. Research what is commonly referred to as the “host institution” to know what to expect in terms of academic rigor.
Some of my fondest memories of my semester abroad are from time spent in class. In addition to classrooms, my instructors met in museums, orchards, castle gardens, and the markets of Paris. Most of the time, I was having so much fun that I didn’t even realize that I was learning. One of the great things about study abroad is the opportunity you have to learn in new settings, among different people, and from distinguished instructors. Take full advantage of learning in this incredible new environment. I promise you won’t regret it!
Curious to study abroad but want to know more about the academics? Ask a CISabroad Advisor!