By Katie Ford
When I arrived at Susquehanna University in August 2009, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. I knew even more specifically that I wanted to study abroad in this little French town called Aix-en-Provence. I had visited it a few years earlier on a vacation with my parents, and even though we’d only been there for a day, I knew I wanted to go back. I walked into the study abroad office that first semester, and told the lady at reception that I wanted to study abroad, and that was where I wanted to go. She pointed me in the direction of the Director, who helped me understand my options for going to Aix, and got me set up with the study abroad advisor. As they say, the rest is history. My initial reasoning for wanting to study abroad is still a bit of a mystery to me; it probably had to do with the fact that some sort of study abroad experience was required at Susquehanna, and I figured “GO” big or go home. It may also have had to do with the adventure that I knew I probably wasn’t going to get if I spent four years living in central Pennsylvania. A little part of it was also probably to prove that I could. No matter how I ended up going, it was absolutely the best thing that happened to me at university.
Most people do not end up studying abroad because of something like that. In my experience advising students, most don’t know if or where they want to go until they’ve submitted their application, and they might not even know for sure at that point. There are all kinds of hurdles that American university students must face when deciding to study abroad, like the money they assume it takes, the problems finding classes they assume they’ll have, and all of the bureaucratic non-sense that they’re sure to run into. In reality, studying abroad doesn’t have to be THAT much more expensive than a semester at your home university, and I’m willing to venture a guess that almost any student will be able to find classes abroad that will satisfy some sort of degree requirement. Of course, as with any really amazing experience, there’s bound to be some non-sense that must be dealt with, but you’d be surprised how much it’s kept to a minimum in order to encourage students to study abroad. And even on the off chance that these things are still issues for you, the benefits you’ll reap from studying abroad far outweigh the negatives. In the international education field, the skills students develop while studying abroad are usually referred to as “soft skills”- things like personal development, cultural awareness and understanding, responsibility, etc. I think that these skills are vastly underrated by university students, and I think the development in these skills that occurs while studying abroad is even more vastly underrated. My entire life changed as a result of studying abroad for four months. I not only developed personally, but I gained a greater respect for people. Just people, everywhere in the world, what they go through, how the live, everything about them. I also completely changed my life goals, but this doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone (usually you’ll just get the travel bug and will spend the rest of your university years figuring out how to travel hack so that you can go back…).
I think that studying abroad is vitally important to the undergraduate curriculum in the United States, and in the rest of the world. If more students were to study abroad while they’re still developing their ideas and opinions, it will affect how their ideas and opinions in a positive way for the rest of their lives. Learning to appreciate other people for the ways in which they’re both similar and different to you is a mind-blowing experience. I sincerely hope that if you’re considering studying abroad, that you do it. It will be worth it, trust me.