Freshman year isn’t typically the time when most students study abroad. The majority of those who do go overseas for school wait until either junior or senior year of college. This is in part because the higher education system designs study abroad to work best in the third or fourth year of a degree -- but also because most students aren’t ready to study abroad right away after arriving on campus.
Three months into my freshman year, I heard about an opportunity to attend my university’s new campus in Hong Kong. To be honest, I had never considered studying abroad in Hong Kong until that day. I was so desperate to get as far away from my lousy dorm-mate as possible and I was already disillusioned by college in general. Convincing my parents was the hard part. I had saved up some money working almost full time through my last two years of high school, but not enough to cover all of the expenses by myself. After my parents begrudgingly agreed to cover the flight, I packed my bags and left the country just a month later. From the moment I got out of the plane, I was enchanted by the stark contrast between mountains and skyscrapers. Hong Kong is straight out of a science fiction movie. This experience ultimately sent me in a totally new direction with my education and aspirations.
A bold attitude and determination are prerequisites for studying abroad as a freshman. There are some drawbacks, but in my opinion, they are negligible when compared with the benefits.
Pro: You Gain Independence, Freedom & Autonomy Studying Abroad Your Freshman Year
Living in a dormitory or with parents doesn’t exactly scream adulthood the way that finding yourself on an unknown street in a foreign country, navigating in a new language, and successfully integrating with a new culture does.
During the portion of my freshman year that I spent on campus, I quickly found that being car-less and residing in a tiny dorm room wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Trust me, you’re not missing out on much by opting to spend half or all of your freshman year abroad. Rather, you’re likely to have an even more memorable experience than if you stayed. Living alone overseas might seem intimidating, especially if it’s your first time abroad, but the journey will ultimately help you learn to fend for yourself. Necessity will make you mature faster and you’ll return with a renewed sense of self.
Con: You Give Up the “Typical” Freshman Experience
While your peers are enjoying their first year out of high school, settling into their dorms, making new friends, and going to parties, you’ll be far away, missing out on all of the “normal” college experiences. FOMO (fear of missing out) might set in as soon as you leave and hear about the cool stuff your friends are doing.
Depending on where you choose to study abroad, house parties may not be an option, the academics might be significantly more challenging or too easy, the area could be difficult to navigate or, worst case scenario, you won’t connect with your foreign classmates.
Pro: You Jump-Start Your Global Citizenship
Spending a semester abroad as a freshman will increase your cultural competency, build your character, and give you a better sense of the world around you. This is not only a resume-builder but allows you the opportunity to study abroad a second (or third time in my case) while you’re still completing an undergraduate degree if you have the means. You might even become an international studies major! In almost every case, you’ll find you catch the travel bug and it won’t be the last time you venture overseas.
Con: You May Take the Experience For Granted
You may not want to hear it -- or believe it -- but being 18 or 19 is still a naive stage in life. if you’re anything like me, you won’t realize how great your freshman study abroad experience really is until it’s over.
Years after I returned from Hong Kong, I came to the realization that I hardly took advantage of my time there. I only befriended a couple locals, I barely spoke a word of Cantonese, and I never ventured to mainland China or truly understood their culture.
If you can break free from the exchange student bubble by studying the language and attempting to better understand the country’s culture, you can overcome this “con.” Spend time with locals, eat the regional cuisine, travel if you can, and engage in the culture. You won’t regret any of it later -- in fact, you’ll only look back more fondly on those memories.
Pro: You Can Learn a New Language or Work Towards Fluency
There is no better way to learn a language than being forced to use it in everyday life. There’s no better way to use it in everyday life than studying abroad while you’re a student.
You can learn a year’s worth of language classes in a month or two if you buckle down and commit to studying while you’re overseas. When I returned from my second round of studying abroad in Japan after only a summer, I tested out of two semesters of Japanese courses at my university. This offset the cost of attending a summer language course abroad and made graduating in time with a Japanese minor possible. Becoming more proficient in the language of the country I studied in also helped me bond with my Japanese peers and understand the nuances of their culture.
If learning or mastering a new language is a priority for you, studying abroad as a freshman is a great way to make progress on this goal.
Con: You Will Experience Homesickness
Unfortunately, homesickness is a reality for almost everyone who spends a significant amount of time abroad. It’s a reality that being away from your home, friends, family, and familiar way of life can create unpleasant feelings.
Loneliness tends to be an issue for people living overseas. I always felt somewhat alienated coming into a new country where I don’t know anyone. I would find myself focused on everything I had (temporarily) left behind, rather than what was right in front of me. Try not to obsess over your friends leaving you behind while you’re gone, they’ll probably be thrilled to see you when you return and catch up on your adventures.
If you start feeling homesick, open up to a classmate, roommate, or advisor. Check in with your friends and family frequently. Send each other care packages of sweets, photos, small gifts, anything that will give you that warm, fuzzy nostalgia for home. More importantly, work to create a social support network of people in your area.
Pro: You Will Make New Friends Overseas
Regardless of where you study, forming relationships with your peers will benefit you for many years to come. This is especially true if you study abroad with fellow freshman from around the world -- you’ll be having this unique experience together!
Despite getting stuck in the exchange student bubble my first time overseas, I still regularly communicate with the friends I made in Hong Kong, including the locals. They live all over the world: Poland, Germany, China, Taiwan, England, Scotland, Australia… The list goes on. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of them. They’ve given me free beds to sleep on, tours of their communities, a local perspective, and camaraderie that is unlike that of my friends at home.
If there is one piece of advice that I hope you take away from this list, it is that you should make a point to stay close to your international friends. Don’t let those relationships fade when you leave. Send messages, write letters, talk via Skype, whatever it takes to maintain your global companions.
Con: You Will Experience Culture Shock
Similar to homesickness, entering into a foreign culture while you’re still fresh out of high school can feel isolating. The adjustment period is usually a bit awkward and clumsy. This is temporary, but culture shock will come and go as you have new experiences.
My first day in Hong Kong, after 22 hours of flying, I went to a restaurant. The temperature on that day was a muggy 95ºF. At this restaurant, they only served hot soups, there was no air conditioning and the server brought me boiling hot water to drink with my meal. I’ll never forget how miserable I felt; tired and dripping sweat. Nevertheless, the soup was delicious and the experience was an authentic one. Don’t expect everything to feel like a vacation.
Pro: You Become a Master at Adapting to New Cultures & Lifestyles -- Way Ahead of Your Classmates
When you return home from studying abroad as a freshman, you’ll have a major life skill mastered (especially if you take some of the other advice in this article!). Being adaptable will serve you well in the rest of college and throughout your life and career. The best way to learn adaptability is through immersion, and study abroad is one of the best cultural immersions you can experience as a college student.
Immerse yourself in the regional cuisine. Try everything and eat mindfully. Another benefit of studying abroad (in the majority of countries) is that you don’t have to be 21 to consume alcohol. Take advantage of this without destroying your health or your reputation. Make sure to also have adventures that don’t involve alcohol.
Embrace the environment: hike, bike, climb, kayak, swim, ski or just be outside. See the sights: visit museums, landmarks, gardens, and attend local festivals. Use this time to gain perspective on your own culture as well as others. Come home with stories and don’t be afraid to play tourist and take loads of photos. You’ll be glad you did.
After returning from Hong Kong, I switched my major to East Asian studies and continued to live, work, and study in East Asia. I could have never predicted how much of an impact this time abroad would have on my future if I hadn’t taken the initiative. After graduating college, I went on to work in Japan, and currently, I work to support refugees from all over the world in making a sustainable livelihood in the United States. If I didn’t go to Hong Kong six years ago, my life probably would have gone in another direction, and I can’t imagine a more enriching path.