Each semester, thousands of students pack up their lives into a couple suitcases, embrace their parents for one last time and head off on the adventure of a lifetime. But don't worry, Mom and Dad, it's a very organized, structured AND educational adventure. It is called "study" abroad for a reason. Just like on their home campuses, students attend classes, write papers and cram for exams.
But the truth is that study abroad is so much more. It is perhaps the most educational experience of any college student's tenure. But it’s not what happens inside of the classroom that has the greatest impact on a student's life, but rather, what happens outside of the classroom that really matters.
The casual encounters with the local shopkeeper, the trials and tribulations of figuring out the local transportation system and the chance to experience a new culture firsthand create an educational breeding ground. Students learn about a new culture in a completely different way than what they are accustomed to — by experiencing.
When students return home, they may view the world and their place in it quite differently. Some students will change majors, some will seek out international groups on campus and some may even come home with a new girlfriend. Most importantly, students will uncover a few things about themselves in the process, and are likely to come home with a bit more...
Although most students separated from their parent's cocoon as freshmen in college, there was still a security net in place. When meal card balances approached $0 or clothes became scarce (probably from rotting in the laundry basket), mom and dad were often there as a backup. Even if parents weren't a five-minute drive away to rescue their children from such disasters, their resourcefulness always came in handy.
However, when sons and daughters board that plane to Neverland, they leave that security back home. Even though technology has eliminated some of the barriers that existed in years past, time zone differences and cultural discrepancies certainly have not. Instead of turning to their parents, students are forced to use their own wisdom and intelligence to solve problems.
Study abroad gives students the ability to finally use the skills their parents and professors have instilled in them throughout the years and apply them in real-life situations. Parents are forced to loosen the grip they've had on their children for so long and trust that their kids will thrive on their own.
In addition to gaining independence, study abroad students also tend to exude more confidence. The shy student who hid in the back of the classroom during language classes might start to participate more as a result of communicating with his host family. Or, the girl that has always struggled on exams might find that that the out-of-class, hands-on lessons help her retain information easier and perform better on classroom assignments.
Even the most seemingly confident individuals have self-doubts. Living and learning in another country often helps reduce insecurities by revealing strengths. And, it can sometimes give the underdog a chance to shine!
3. Critical Thinking Skills
Most kids, no matter how defiant, strive for their parents' support and approval. Kids look up to their parents as knowledgeable, well-informed decision makers (most of the time!). As a result, kids and teens tend to adopt the beliefs and values passed onto them by their older, wiser parents. And, as teens become adults themselves, many adopt the same political and religious beliefs held by their parents…rarely questioning the alternatives.
However, when students become immersed in cultures that differ from their own, they start to question their own beliefs. They no longer rely on their parents influence, but use their own critical thinking skills to form opinions. Students may not change the way they think or behave, but they do often gain a greater appreciation and respect for differences in opinion.
4. Passion for Learning
Most study abroad students attend college to learn more — that is the point of attending a higher education institution, after all. However, the reasons for learning aren't always as genuine as one might hope. While there are a plethora of students simply curious about the world and its various facets, many other students attend college either because they were coerced (by parents) or because it’s the only way to climb the career ladder.
In many cases, students lack a passion for learning. Fortunately, study abroad is starting to change that. Students are discovering that learning does not always need to be measured by a numerical score on an exam or a letter grade on a paper.
During study abroad programs, in-class lectures and lessons are often complemented by out-of-class "field trips." Visits to churches, museums, and art galleries put excitement back into learning. Attending cooking classes, speaking with natives, and participating in local festivities offer a new type of learning experience. Instead of being lectured, students become engaged in the learning process, sparking a new desire to learn.
As Kristin Nehls states,
Barcelona changed everything. And when I say it changed everything, I mean everything: my worldview, sense of confidence, direction in life, major in college, choice of social circles, language abilities, even my educational drive...
While each study abroad experience is unique, each student comes away from the experience learning something about themselves and the world. Study abroad doesn’t have to turn your entire life upside down to be worthwhile, it just needs to leave traces inside of you.