Studying abroad is one of the best choices you can make, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Choosing where to study and what program to join requires a lot of work. But what many people overlook is the importance of choosing when to study abroad. This is perhaps the most important decision, so you should be strategic in choosing when to go abroad.
Senior year of high school, my best friend and I spent Spring Break with her family south of London, in the quaint, coastal Brighton. After exploring England and falling in love with London, I decided I had to come back. Fast forward to Fall 2013 and I was embarking on what would soon become one of the best adventures of my life, during the perfect time – my sophomore year.
For many of my friends and me, sophomore year was the perfect time to study abroad. We were still exploring our independence and our academic interests. Of course, it wasn’t without its downsides. Check out the list below for an idea of what to consider about studying abroad your sophomore year.
Pro: Your Independence will be Tested
Sophomores are typically 19 or 20 years old, which most would agree is pretty young to be traveling solo to another part of the world. Sure, you may have gone to sleep-away summer camps, and you’ve already spent a year in college, but as a sophomore, you’ve probably never gone on such a big adventure alone.
This isn’t to scare you; it’s new and exciting! But the reality is you are by yourself. Even if your program is very hands-on, providing transportation and housing, you probably don’t know anyone.
I opted to save money by heading to London on my own, rather than aboard the group flight arranged by my program, IFSA-Butler. I felt comfortable flying and navigating customs alone, but I was nervous about getting from the airport to the city. I spent hours making sure I knew exactly how to get to the train into central London, the train’s name, exactly how much it would cost, and how to get to the hotel from the station. This was the first time I was entirely responsible for getting myself somewhere that wasn’t a 9am class across the street from my dorm. It sounds silly now, but I felt wildly independent and accomplished when I successfully navigated my way to the hotel and checked into orientation.
That seemingly small feat began to teach me I could conquer anything on my own! By the end of the semester, I had traveled solo to Edinburgh, Valencia, and Paris. Studying abroad is incredibly empowering at any age, but I took that newfound independence and self-reliance back to school with me for two more years before graduation.
Con: You Will Miss Out on A Lot
Sophomore year is when you decide which of the many organizations you joined freshman year you want to really commit to. Unfortunately, going abroad your sophomore year means you’re going to miss out on fun events and leadership opportunities. But on the bright side, you still have 2-2.5 years when you get back to continue to foster your commitment to these organizations and have a blast at their events!
Sophomore year is also when you really cultivate the friendships that survived beyond freshman year. You’re going to miss out on a semester’s worth of memories and inside jokes. The FOMO will be real, there’s no way around that. But, in my experience, the friendships that can survive that time apart are the best ones. So: keep in touch with the ones you miss and don’t be too sad to see some go. Don’t forget you’re going to make amazing, lifelong friends abroad too!
Pro: Missing Out Won’t Negatively Affect Your Future
Sophomore year is the perfect time to go abroad because you are probably still deciding what you want to do with your life. At this point, you aren’t yet expected to be committed to a career path, whereas during Junior or Senior year, you are probably interning or volunteering within your desired field. Sophomore year is the last time you can just have fun without having to invest time in cultivating your future. If you’re lucky, your time abroad may even influence what career you want!
Con: You Will Likely Have to Budget for the First Time
You probably didn’t have to think twice about money for food or housing with your freshman year plan. Studying abroad sophomore year is a bit more challenging than other years because it is your first time living with a true budget -- and you’re trying to do it in a foreign country.
While studying abroad, you are on your own for food, transportation, and school supplies. You’ll also have to account for travel, shopping, and other fun, but costly, activities. It’s easy to get into the “swipe it” trap and forget that you have limited funds, especially as a first-time budgeter. If you are on a set budget like I was, the best thing you can do to prevent yourself from overspending is taking out a set amount of cash each week (more tips on how to budget while studying abroad here). This way, you can track how much you’re spending by how much is left in your wallet!
Pro: You Are Likely Still Deciding Your Major
Most students declare a major by the end of sophomore year. By studying abroad as a sophomore, it is a ‘last chance’ to take a bunch of topics you really want to explore, and not be confined to the requirements of your major. If I had studied abroad after my sophomore year without the flexibility of taking any class that interested me, I wouldn’t have been able to take Linguistics, Business, or International Communications classes.
Taking classes that pique your interest may even influence what you decided to major in upon returning home, and there’s no better place to foster your interests than in an international community! Not taking upper-level classes also means your classes will probably be less challenging, leaving more time for traveling and exploring your new home.
Con: You Might (Read: Probably Will) Take It For Granted
As I mentioned before, most sophomores are barely 20 years old. Honestly, this means you might not really understand what an incredible life-changing opportunity studying abroad is until after it’s passed.
I took living in London for granted and wish I had explored the city more. I was so focused on collecting passport stamps that I forgot to really get to know where I was living. Had I been older, I probably wouldn’t have overlooked the wonders I had access to living in London. Studying abroad a bit later, you’ll probably have a better idea of what you want out of your experience. While I loved every second of my time in London, I wish I had understood that I might not be back for a long time.
Pro: You Will Be Exposed to New Ideas that Can Shape Your Future
As a sophomore, you’re still pretty new to living on your own and choosing your own path. You’re impressionable and may be willing to consider why other paths or ways of life could be better.
Studying abroad sophomore year means this exposure is early enough to allow you to internalize it if you so choose, which I did. I befriended friends from all over the world and loved hearing about their lives and what the social norms were in their cultures. So many of their countries, unlike the U.S., don’t pressure young adults to start their education the second they’re done with high school, let alone finish it in 4 years. Meeting people who were 4-5 years older than me who were thriving despite surely being considered “behind” by American standards showed me it is okay to take life at your own pace.
I ended up following suit by taking time off between undergrad and law school, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. If I had studied abroad in my junior or senior year, I probably would have been very reluctant to modify my path. By studying abroad as a sophomore, you can take advantage of inspiration and experience to adjust yours without it putting you too behind.
I truly think sophomore year is the best time to study abroad. All other pros and cons aside, not many of your friends are likely to have gone abroad yet. This means you won’t have expectations – good, bad, fears, or excitements – based on other people’s experiences. You won’t have a friend who can’t stop talking about their terrible semester in Lisbon or one who insists you go to Tokyo (although I’m sure both are wonderful). You can decide for yourself why and where you want to study abroad, and you can prioritize what is important to you.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do your research and speak with alums of your school’s study abroad program; but, ultimately, your opinion and what you want out of your experience is what matters in choosing when and where to study abroad.