One of the best experiences of my 20s was something I never thought I’d be able to afford: my time studying abroad.
Studying abroad has a huge long-term professional value in being able to travel during your university years and to apply that experience toward your future work-related goals. Learning a new language in an immersive context and having an international perspective on global issues can be key factors in a potential employer’s hiring decision.
I’d watched with envy as friends would enroll in semester or yearlong programs in places like Spain, Japan, and England. I knew I wanted to go, too, but my family didn’t have the same type of disposable income.
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Throughout my undergraduate career, I struggled financially to get through college. I resorted to working in food services on campus so I could eat regularly. To this day, I rarely eat pizza because I made it so frequently in college.
As such, the idea of traveling to Europe seemed surreal, almost impossible. Friends had done it, but no one in my family had. I had few financial resources as I started mapping out my plan. I had to start from point zero to figure out how I would study abroad.
Putting in the Hours
I began working 70-hour weeks in retail, happily standing for eight hours a day — at least half of them on aching feet — to help fund my goal.
I’m proud to say that after almost a year of asking random people if they would like to use cash or credit while always wearing a smile, I had enough saved up to buy a ticket to my dream destination and live comfortably, internationally.
Studying abroad isn’t just for students with rich parents — anyone can do it if they are willing to work hard and sacrifice their time, as I did with my 70-hour workweeks.
If you’re a university student considering a study abroad program, there are a few factors you should consider when planning your trip.
Choose Your Program Duration
How much time do you really have to take a trip abroad? As a student, your options include microprograms (one to three weeks), semester-abroad opportunities, and full-year-abroad programs.
A good first step is to take stock of your professional priorities for studying abroad. Let those goals inform the length of your program.
“Ask yourself, first and foremost, Why am I going?” says Alexandra Feig, a travel blogger and study abroad enthusiast who documents her adventures on her site, A Maiden Voyager. “Do you want to just get a feel for living abroad? Do you want to learn a language? An easier one or a really difficult one? Once you know why you are going, you can start to look at more suitable programs.”
In general, microprograms are better for those seeking an understanding of what it’s like to learn and study abroad. If your goals are loftier, such as fulfilling a university language requirement or understanding international politics from a new perspective, a semester or year program might work best for you.
Choosing Your Location
Where you study abroad will be the largest determinant of your program’s cost.
“It is amazing how diverse the options are and how high or low tuition fees — and cost of living — is in many different countries,” says Mike Sanders of Study Abroad Guide, a website that provides resources on study abroad programs the world over.
“In Germany, for example, students can pay as little as 280 USD per semester. In Australia, an average undergraduate degree is going to set you back 20,000 USD per year. And in the United Kingdom, average tuition is 12,000 USD,” Sanders adds.
And while these prices exclude room and board, there are options available that are significantly lower than the average stateside cost of a four-year university at $23,890 a year for public schools and $32,410 for private, according to the College Board.
Since so much of your program cost will boil down to the location and university of your program abroad, and the price can vary widely, entertain all options to ensure you’re studying within your budget.
Take Stock of Your Resources
Once you’ve decided your program length and location, you’ll want to start saving ahead of time — as early as one year in advance if you’re able. This will provide you with both an emergency fund and some extra cash for discretionary spending, which will inevitably occur while abroad.
“During this experience of a lifetime, you won't want to hold back, even if finances are strapped,” says Jon Miksis, a travel blogger and author of Global Viewpoint.
“It’s important to scale back your lifestyle leading up to the trip.”
“I chose to spend less time eating out, which had an incredible impact on my finances. For most people, the college lifestyle is very expensive, so you’ll want to curtail some of it in the weeks and months prior to the trip,” Miksis adds. “It will be worth it once the semester of your lifetime begins.”
Remember to factor in the costs of your transportation, food, housing, tuition, and passport (if you don’t have one) — not to mention budgeting for fun activities and miscellaneous expenses.
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Additionally, look into the limitations of your study visa, and whether you can work while abroad. Certain visas will let you obtain part-time employment as a means of adding some financial padding while living as an expat.
“If you’re worried about funds, it’s super important to check if the student visa allows you to work. This can differ from country to country,” says Joseph Hallgren, a former exchange participant to both Sweden and Japan.
“The ability to work may also change depending on the duration of your stay. You’re more likely to be allowed to seek a job if there for a longer period of time,” Hallgren says.
Understand Your Credit Hours
If you’re in school right now and want to travel abroad next semester or next year, act quickly to understand how your time abroad will affect your ability to graduate on time.
Speak with your academic adviser and your school’s study abroad office to figure out which programs will award you course credits toward your degree. If you complete a program sponsored by your school, the courses you take abroad will likely have equivalents at your home university.
If you participate in a nonsponsored program, you’ll probably have to petition your school to have your courses accepted. This can be a tricky, more time-intensive process.
“If you're doing an exchange through your school, check what classes have received credits from past students,” Hallgren says.
“The university website will provide a lot of information on the program you’re looking at, but it shouldn’t be your only resource. Look up information on the city, country, and university abroad.”
Many students who have participated in study abroad programs stress the necessity of double checking — or even triple checking — with your college or university to confirm whether your credit hours from abroad will count on your transcript.
“Although I worked with the college study abroad office and believed that I would have all the credits I needed to graduate, once I returned, they realized that they had miscounted, and I was told I needed an additional semester,” Feig says.
“I went into the course catalog and was able to switch majors at the last minute, which enabled me to get the required credits and graduate on time.”
Feig’s experience serves as a testament to the importance of ensuring your credits will count on your transcript after you complete your program, as well as staying on top of your graduation requirements.
Finally, you’ll want to start looking at scholarship possibilities and grants to help with the cost of your program. Websites like the College Board, Federal Student Aid, and Scholarships.com are excellent preliminary resources for finding scholarships specifically for study abroad programs.
Besides increasing your work hours, speak to your student-aid adviser to determine whether your financial aid package can be applied toward a study abroad program. Private loans have varying criteria in terms of what they can cover (including study abroad). However, you can use any financial aid provided by the federal government, including subsidized and unsubsidized loans, to cover the cost of your time abroad.
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How to Study Abroad: Final Tips
There are a few more aspects of studying abroad you may want to consider before signing up for a program.
- Talk to people who have traveled abroad and ask for their best travel tips.
- Decide if the program is not only fun but moves you forward in your career goals.
- Determine if it will be necessary to understand a foreign language
- Assess if you will be happy outside your comfort zone.
- Start early on processing all necessary travel documents, like your passport or visa.
After the long, 70-hour workweeks, missing out on some of the fun of college, and saving like crazy, I can definitively say it was all worth it to study abroad. If you assess your own financial resources, take stock of different program costs, and seek out classes that will enable you to graduate on time, I’m sure you’ll find a program that will work for you and your budget.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.