After I quit swimming, I felt lost. Up until that point, that summer after sophomore year in college, my life had revolved around the sport. Summers that should have been spent kicking aimlessly through train yards instead laser-focused on competition and routine. College semesters with a 5 am alarm.
By the time graduation rolled around... I had missed the starting gun [to study abroad].
When I was suddenly granted all that free time back, I couldn’t process what it meant. I had no concept of its possibility and four semesters to explore it. But my father had an idea: “go study abroad.” A young man’s life is defined by the times he didn’t listen to his father. Unfortunately, that was one of those moments.
For better or worse, every person who didn’t study abroad has a reason why. Mine was a simple lack of attention to time and the idea that none of my friends were doing it either (they were, in their own time, and I didn’t notice). By the time graduation rolled around, I looked around quizzically at everybody else’s experience and realized that time had snuck up on me. I had missed the starting gun. My failure to study abroad would become one of my greatest regrets of my college career. Here’s why:
When I asked any single friend about his or her study abroad trip, the last thing anybody ever mentioned – if at all – was the required course work. Some of the classes they had to take were more intense than others (lookin’ at you, architecture), but ultimately all found the time spent on work to be but a fraction of the overall experience.
The important thing, then, is simply being abroad in the first place. Learning can happen outside of the classroom, and sometimes it can only happen there. After a quick poll of my collegiately-travelled friends, certain aspects revealed themselves as more important:
While it obviously doesn’t apply to those who ventured off to such exotic, anglophone locales as London and Melbourne, language – that is, struggling to stay afloat amidst a foreign one – is the most fulfilling aspect of six (or so) months studying abroad.
Most college students have never been overseas without their parents, nor have they really struggled to fend for themselves. But these helpless students are really baby birds that don’t know they have wings until a predator howling in another tongue comes rooting through their nest. When they find that they can fly, or even just order at a restaurant in Spanish, it changes their lives.
It’s similar to language, but it can vary from place to place. Even the Commonwealth countries do things different from the States and immersing yourself in a new culture, wherever it may be, is a profound learning experience.
The world becomes a bigger place the first time a Frenchman shatters your conception of personal space, or a Londoner refuses to speak on the Tube. And for those that made it further and studied abroad off the beaten path, there’s nothing like a truly different culture to foster appreciation and understanding for things back home.
Because the class schedules while abroad are fairly lenient (often amounting to such gargantuan commitments as – gasp – four hours a week), and because the trips are often funded by the deep pockets of loving parents (not to discount the hard work of those doing it on their own dime), students studying abroad have a unique ability to see more than their chosen university’s city.
A weekend trip while studying abroad can turn into a week-long excursion to a neighboring country. Students heading to Europe could potentially visit every country in the European Union in one, albeit giant and extended, couchsurfing extravaganza.
They say the grass is always greener on the other side. And though they often say that mockingly, shouldn’t you at least see for yourself?
Because while the best time to study abroad is in college, the second best time is now.
People who study abroad get to have experiences they’ve never had the opportunity to see before – more specific than just culture, or language, or further travel. A royal wedding in London. A music festival in Melbourne. Everything that happens on a Semester at Sea. These memories are more important than a few notes scribbled in a classroom.
It really is unlike anything else you’ll encounter in your collegiate time, and by failing to go study abroad, I missed out on all of those things. And that’s why it’s my biggest regret of my college career. But it’s not – and it won’t be – the biggest regret of my life. Because while the best time to study abroad is in college, the second best time is now.
Graduated but Not Too Late
Notice anything about those highlights? All of them are completely achievable outside of a college program. In fact, creating your own experience, free from the time constraints and scheduling of a university-funded curriculum, could be even better. All it takes is a little initiative and creative thinking.
Language immersion is a basic part of travel that hardly needs commentary. Once you’re overseas, you’ve checked that box. However, many people don’t have the luxury of a full semester to stay abroad, and language improvement takes time.
To help offset that difficulty -- not to mention get a real “study” experience -- check out one of the communal language learning communities, like Livemocha or various language exchange meetups around you. They're easy to use and make learning fun. Livemocha will have you grading the homework of users learning English, while they grade your own, which means that you’ll get the feel of being overseas without leaving your room.
Alternatively, you could consider a short term language course abroad. You don’t have to be in college to take a language course and there are plenty of private language schools that offer courses for adults.
When studying abroad, one of the biggest benefits is a group of program organizers and teachers to help ease the transition and point out the nuances of the local culture. While a keen observer will pick up on these things by themselves, it’s much more convenient and accurate to have that guidance available.
For those of us in a post-collegiate point in life, internships and jobs abroad will provide the same level. The team leaders are always either locals or expats with significant time spent there, and it’s in their best interests to make sure the people representing them know their way around the block (figuratively and literally).
Furthermore, since an internship’s time frame is generally three-six months, just like an study abroad trip, it’s practically a second chance at a second semester. Or, if you'd like to bask in the luxury of infinite time -- now that you don't have to rush back home for your fall semester -- getting a job, like the ever popular ESL gig abroad, will give you even more of a chance to immerse yourself in another culture.
And lo, while Animal House may suggest otherwise, there are some things that get even better after college! Sure, those lucky studious guys have the benefit of a six-month program and some pretty sweet student deals, but what they don’t have is flexibility. Class schedules are lenient, but they’re not that lenient. You still need to show up.
Traveling after college, however, is based almost entirely on the commitment leveled at it -- if you want to hit every country in the European Union, why, go right ahead. No student visa necessary, and no need to restrict yourself to just a couple of days in each city.
Of course, this changes when internship and work programs come into play, as the schedules on those are nasty jazz compared to a students, but there’s always time (and hopefully a little extra cash) after the program ends. Students have to return to school for the next semester -- you don’t have to return unless you want to (or run out of money).
If you think you need to be a student to have memories that last a lifetime, then you haven’t even graduated yet. Growing up seems scary to all except those who’ve done it, and the years after college are some of the best. Two words: disposable income. Wondering if you’ll have these experiences isn’t even a question. Get traveling. See for yourself.
Growing up seems scary to all except those who’ve done it, and the years after college are some of the best.
Really, the only thing you miss out on by skipping a semester abroad is the part involving a semester. The rest of it falls into place the instant you pack your suitcase. There’s no study program that can’t be imitated on a personal trip or a post-collegiate internship, and that’s including something as extravagant as Semester at Sea (cruise ship careers, y’all!).
With any luck, you – dear reader – will lean back in your ergonomic computer chair with a light bulb over your head because it’s not too late. You’ve got a few semesters left to make the right decision. The rest of us will have to live with our decisions for the rest of our lives. But to all you aging folks who feel their hair escaping from their forehead or their back aching in new places: no, it’s not too late. You should regret not studying abroad in college. I do. But regret is a mistress easily dismissed by second chances.
There is always still time. And hey, if push comes to shove, there’s always graduate school.