Many people say college goes by quickly; it is just four years after all. It goes without saying that studying abroad for a year will make that time fly even faster.
I studied abroad in Japan at a partner university to complete my Japanese minor. The Japanese school year starts in April and ends in February of the next year, so it can eat up to three semesters from an American university student's schedule. I left during the middle of the spring semester of my sophomore year and returned during the end of my junior year.
While the experience was incredible and I want to return every day, it took a lot of planning to avoid a delayed graduation. Regardless of an on-time graduation, the experiences are more than worth the risk. Based on my experiences, I’m here to break it down for you so you can understand what makes a full year of studying abroad worthwhile -- but also some of the drawbacks.
Pro: You’ll Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
I am someone who had bad social anxiety back in high school. It was not until I studied abroad that I really had to come out of my shell.
Daily tasks such a getting groceries or doing the laundry became mini-adventures. I had to devote a lot of time to do these tasks and ask local and fellow international students for tips. My choices were to either go without or figure it out, so my communication skills increased tenfold as sort of a bonus for studying abroad.
You may find that in studying abroad for a full year, you have more time abroad -- not just based on the calendar compared to your fellow students who only study abroad for a semester -- but to develop and grow and a person.
Con: You Must Be Organized to Graduate On Time…
...You may even need to take some online classes to make it happen!
Some people may think it is impossible to graduate on-time if you study abroad for more than a semester, but it is totally possible. Many universities will offer general studies courses online, so one trick is to save those for your semester abroad. It is extra work, true, but many students would be happy to keep the money an extra semester would cost.
Another tip is to talk with professors -- especially your academic advisor. Even if a class you need to take to fulfill your graduation requirements is not offered online, some professors may be willing to do an independent study on the same content that would count toward the degree.
However, keep in mind that your success in petitioning for special allowances depends entirely on the academic field and the registrar -- please be courteous if you attempt. Living in the digital age opens a lot of potential to experiment, so it never hurts to ask.
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Pro: Your Study Abroad Experience Influences Your Postgrad Plans
When I started my undergraduate career, all my ambitions were domestic. Sure, I may have traveled abroad for a vacation or two, but I never had any plans for long-term commitments in another country. After studying abroad, I discovered that I had a strong passion for international relations and that is the path I wanted to take. I now plan to teach English and attend graduate school abroad.
If you want to stay in your home country after returning home from studying abroad, that is totally fine. The lesson is to not place a limit on yourself. By studying abroad for a full year, you’ll have the opportunity to really see how much you like it, and if you find a more global future appealing for your personal and professional goals.
Con: Post-Study Abroad Depression & Reverse Culture Shock are Real
When I first landed in Japan, I was welcomed by walls of text in a language that is very different from English. It is no surprise that there was some culture-shock; however, the true impact was the reverse culture-shock when I returned home. One great example was how shocked I was to realize the size of drinks served in American restaurants compared to those in Japan. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself shocked by things you once considered “normal” too.
Another topic that I cannot stress enough is post-study abroad depression. The second I step foot on American soil after being in Japan for a year, I instantly wanted to go back. This does not mean I disliked my host country, but rather I missed the sense of adventure, the idea of traveling and experiencing something new. What made me feel depressed was the idea of being back to my normal life and leaving behind the international life I carefully forged in another country.
My top tip for dealing with both post-study abroad depression and culture shock is to start planning travels again once you return home; even if it’s a few months or a year in the future, it will help you have something to look forward to as you integrate into life back home.
Pro: You’ll Build an International Network Before Graduation
Whether I was walking through a random mall in the outskirts of Tokyo or sitting in an okonomiyaki restaurant, some residents interested in international relations would approach me. I obtained business cards and email addresses from several people who dealt with working in other countries. In an area that was predominantly Japanese, people from those careers are happy to meet with a foreigner.
I also still have ties with many of the professors at my host university, as well as fellow international students. It is fantastic to know people who are already doing what I want to do, and their advice could very well help me in landing some international work.
Many networking opportunities will simply come to you; I never had to work much to make any connections. In a country like Japan where westerners are harder to come by, many people will want to talk with you. If you are living in an international dorm, then you will meet many people from other countries simply through daily tasks. But if you want to actively build a network, then I would suggest talking with the international office about community activities or meeting with the host university’s professors during their office hours.
Pro: You’ll Learn a New Language Through Immersion
The biggest reason I chose to study abroad in Japan was that I was studying the language as part of my degree program. Being in a country that speaks the target language gives the perfect opportunity to learn things more quickly. It is also much easier to stay motivated.
You might have a similar requirement for school or just a personal passion for learning a language or subject that you really can’t experience as deeply without going abroad. By spending a year abroad, you’ll give yourself the opportunity and time to immerse yourself.
Con: You’ll Miss a Major Part of “Traditional” College Life
This could be a pro or a con, depending on who you ask!
I am fairly introverted by nature, so there are not a lot of on-campus experiences that are super important to me. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to study abroad was to escape my routine life. In fact, after I returned from studying abroad, some of my classmates who had only spent a semester abroad were a bit envious of my year of experience.
However, for some students, you may find that being abroad for two or more semesters makes you feel like you’ve really missed out on campus life. You’ll need to decide for yourself what length of time is right for you.
Pro: It’s Easier to Meet & Open Up to New Lifestyles & Cultures
It is no secret that tons of diversity can be hard to come by for most of us, especially if you -- like me -- grew up in a small town. At my university, there are of course more opportunities, but nothing beats what I experienced abroad.
While many of the people I met while studying abroad were from Asia, a lot of international students were from various parts of Europe and Australia. I remember taking several courses where I was the only American!
To someone with my background, that experience felt very notable. At the host university, my history professor said that he enjoyed how every class had many different ideas as opposed to working in areas like mine where everyone comes from a similar background. After being abroad, I cannot help but agree. If you want to expose yourself to ideas and experiences and people around the world, spending an extended time studying abroad (like a full year) is a great way to do this.
The decision to study abroad for a full year is a big one. An undergraduate degree is only four years long, so it will absorb roughly a quarter of college life. The biggest advice I can give is to plan ahead to make sure it fits your plans. Regardless, the pros definitely outweigh the cons on this one. I have absolutely no regrets about studying abroad for a year, and I spend much of my free time planning my return. I hope you will feel the same!