All students should study abroad. That being said, not everyone’s version of studying abroad should be the same. Studying abroad has as much to do with stepping outside of what is comfortable as it does learning about new cultures. Nothing says “crazy trust exercise” like putting one’s life on hold to jump into the hopefully open arms of a strange university in a foreign country. It is a process that teaches self reliance, independence and adaptability to rise to unexpected challenges. That process begins with the decision to study abroad.
Every college fair and club meeting makes living abroad seem like the very next step after deciding to go. Somehow everything just clicks into place and there is no time between dreaming about Paris to ordering a croissant on Champs-Elysees. What the pamphlets don’t say is that about half of the experience comes before and after the time abroad.
From the moment the decision to study abroad is made, the brainstorming process begins: when, where, how and is this financially feasible? The International Affairs office is a great resource. However, they can only go so far. The surprising thing about studying abroad is that the push for independence starts with the application. How many countries are even in the world? Picking a college within the United States seems easy when compared to choosing a country, let alone a college.
All the burden of research and the educated decision to follow rests on the traveler’s shoulders. No one else can choose when, where or why to study somewhere. The student needs to spend the hours combing through university websites and student reviews. That process alone could take weeks. After that, there are only mounds of paperwork, stacks of forms and countless queries that can’t be answered through Internet searches. All that on top of rigorous course work, a job, social life, balanced sleep schedule … But let’s be real, no one can have all of those things.
It may only be a semester abroad, but the commitment to the project is at least a year. The application and preparation takes the entire semester before leaving and upon the return, things don’t go immediately back to normal. The student has been fundamentally changed. She got to experience the world in a different light. She has an obligation to share that discovery with others. She could become an MSU ambassador or present at elementary schools. Education would be extremely limited if it only took place in a classroom. The community and culture exchange students bring back for the rest of their lives brings balance to the semester of forms they filled out before.
Studying abroad will be a lot of work but it will be the kind of work where the direct impact of each decision can clearly be seen. The nightmares of passports and visas dissolve in the bright Moroccan sun or on the slopes of Norway.