It’s no secret study abroad is one of the best experiences out there for college students. It enhances much more than your degree, it changes you as a person and helps you grow in ways you never knew you needed to grow in. Now months after my graduation, I attribute so much of my professionalism and overall composure to my time abroad. Not only was it growing, but it was also so much fun! My time traveling was the best year of my life, period.
But in preparation for my trip, I faced many road blocks before I even stepped on a plane. Planning your study abroad trip requires lots of front-loading to ensure that everything is in order before you leave the country. The worst case scenario is that you arrive to your destination and find you forgot to confirm a detail or print a special form, therefore inhibiting you from doing that which you left America to do; study.
Below are some of the big roadblocks I faced in my preparation for being abroad, and how I overcame them in order to still complete my program;
As a transfer student at the University of Minnesota, I didn’t think I had the time or resources to study abroad even though it was something I knew I desperately wanted to do. I attended Colorado State University my freshman year and had planned to study abroad through them before I knew I was transferring. Attending a whole new university with different standards and requirements was something I needed to pay close attention to my very first semester. Planning my time well would be to my advantage.
Studying a specialized subject like Food Systems also put me at a disadvantage since I knew no schools abroad would offer agricultural-related classes to count for credit. My GPA also suffered due to my transfer shock so many programs weren’t available to me simply because my grades weren’t good enough. Finally, there was a language hurtle to jump because I had just one semester of Spanish under my belt and most programs in Spanish-speaking nations required two years worth of experience before being eligible to go. Because I made study abroad a priority however, I was able to plan ahead and actually be abroad for longer than I thought possible.
Studying abroad as a senior was perfect for me! I was able to reserve many of my Gen-Eds until the end of my degree, enabling me to still get credit for my classes, and I didn’t have to worry about the transitional shock of returning to normal university life after I came back. I’ve heard from so many other students that this was actually to hardest part of study abroad. You feel as though you change so much while you are away, that there then is an awkward transition in finding a new life while still being in your home university. Most people change friend groups, extra curricular activities, and even majors once they return home. By leaving my final year of college, there was no need for me to do this though. I simply was able to gradually transition from American university into post-graduation life with a fun once-in-a-lifetime experience in between. I highly suggest more people do this!
The Right Program
As I mentioned above, I had plenty of things going against me as I was looking to study abroad in college. But once I was able to find the right program, so many other pieces of the puzzle fell into place! Be prepared however, the first option you find may not be the right option for you. By talking with an advisor you can discuss to see if a program fits all your requirements, and you fit theirs too. I know people who have been rejected to programs before and although it hurts, it’s a reality to be aware of.
Being a part of a large school, I was fortunate to have many different programs available to me to choose from. I could go almost anywhere in the world for any length of time between two weeks and two years! But using their data base, I sifted through programs that would accommodate my GPA and, although it may be hard to admit, those tended to be the less popular programs. Going to London or Paris was not only expensive but it was a competitive program to get into. When I was seriously considering places, I was between Brazil, India, and Vietnam which are not the trendiest study locations, but offered a much more authentic experience. Brazil ended up being the perfect program for me because it was long, had an environmentally-focused approach, and would accommodate my Spanish experience as credit for Beginner Portuguese.
University Credit and Classes
Once I had chosen a program and had been accepted, then began the long process of navigating class credit and class approval. My university had partnered up with a third-party study abroad organization called CIEE, that essentially did the leg work to create credible programs that universities could chose from. Being that education standards vary greatly all over the world, I needed to do work with my CIEE representative to get Brazilian syllabi that I could then formally submit to my college for approval. This was a nightmare because nothing in Brazil moves fast, and I was told that not all classes on the provided list would actually be available when it came time to register.
There also was a moment of panic when the U of M told me that I would be required to take my classes in Portuguese instead of English, when I had had no actual Portuguese exposure before in my life. If these classes were going to count directly toward my GPA, I did not want to even entertain the thought of failing a class due to language barrier, and so went through the process of also getting English class approval at the same time.
At the end of the day, everything worked out, but I did face a class discrepancy in my second semester. One that I had gotten approval for was not actually available and so I re-submitted my proposal while in Brazil to gain one last final credit approval for my degree!
Visas and Logistics
This was another huge challenge I faced while planning my trip because Brazil requires a Visa to enter, but because I was staying for an entire year, I needed to apply for a different visa than normal to ensure my residency was legal. For someone who knew absolutely nothing about the visa application process, I was more than a little intimidated. Each consulate is different and requires different documents based on where you live (which baffled me a bit because we’re all going to the same place aren’t we??) But the real struggle came from not acquiring my documents, but from buying my flight. To prove I did not intend to stay in the country, my round-trip flight needed to be bought ahead of time but I struggled to buy it because of a scholarship logistic.
I was so happy to receive money that would go towards my $2,000 flight to Brazil, but the technicality of winning said scholarship was that I needed to go through a specific travel agent. I could not call them, they needed to call me, and by the time they did I was biting my nails thinking this would throw the entire visa application off. Once the flight was bought, the application was mailed off with my all important passport to Chicago for weeks. Thankfully, it arrived back at my door two days before my departure and I breathed a high sign of relief! Only the night before I had thought through what I would do if my visa didn’t arrive in time. I would need to buy a whole new flight and be late because my passport was key to going anywhere, let alone my final destination of Rio.
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the visa application process, but the Chicago website was very helpful and my program directors were great in explaining everything.
Another huge bear in the study abroad process is money! Just as a general rule of thumb, wherever you go, for whatever length of time, just know it will be expensive. It’s just the way it is and if you really want to go it’s just something you’ll need to accept.
I can’t tell you how many pep talks I had given myself when I was applying for my big private loan. Taking it out would be tripling my debt but that money would be my only source of income for the entire year. Not only was it paying for my schooling, but my rent, groceries, transportation, everything. So, I kept reminding myself that it was an investment worth making and my future self would thank me for doing it, regardless of the debt it put me in.
Now, being on the other side, I won’t lie, the thought of paying it all off is scary. But, in relative terms to the rest of my generation, I’m not nearly as bas as some in terms of total debt acquired. Almost every single other person I know is in the exact same spot as I am, and to be honest I had a much cooler experience than they did. Without a doubt I would do Brazil all over again, even if it meant me taking out more money. It was just that good.
Friend and Family Support
This is the least logistical hurtle to jump, but it’s an all important one and can’t be overlooked. To have the support of your friends and family are huge when deciding to go abroad. Not only will your community have to deal with missing you, but they often worry about you too. Both my parents were worried sick about the idea of their only daughter, a 22 year old woman, with red hair and blue eyes, going down to another hemisphere for a year without so much as a word of Portuguese as experience. I don’t blame them! As a parent I cant imagine the stress I would feel if my child did the same thing. Out in writing it looks stupid! If anything were to happen, my parents would have been utterly powerless, but to me that was half the draw. This was a test for me to see if I truly would be able to handle myself in such a foreign situation.
I was one of the most fortunate people I knew who went down there because I returned with my same phone, id and credit card that I had when I went down there. Not once was I confronted or asked to give up my things, not once did I have my bag taken from the beach or have my pockets picked. I was lucky, and I’m very thankful for that, but even with the threat of having those things taken, I mentally prepared myself all year to lose them. I didn’t place such a huge priority on my phone or card because at the end of the day it was a material item and as long as I myself was okay, that’s all that mattered. This thought is something I think most Americans would have a problem with if I’m to be honest, but I digress.
Missing my friends and family were a huge part of my experience in Rio. Not only did I miss fun friend get togethers, but I missed weddings and funerals, important moments that I know I’ll never get back. That was a hard reality to face. Thanksgiving and Easter were not at all like my normal celebrations and I really missed home those days. But, I knew that however hard it may be for both me and my community, my being in Brazil was the right thing and missing Thanksgiving was a fine sacrifice for the experiences I was gaining down there. Plus, it’s not like I was alone by any means! I made friendships, strong ones at that, and we became a sort of family. Bonded by our common roots and bizarre situation, my friends were everything to me in Brazil. Today I consider some of them to be my best friends, even outside of my Rio experience. I’m thankful for the push to meet new people because otherwise I would have never gotten the opportunity to meet them!
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, study abroad was the best thing I ever did and despite all the details and complications along the way, I look back at my trip and think only of all the amazing experiences I had, and fun memories I can now cherish. If you’re even halfway considering going abroad during college, let me personally shout to you, DO IT! You absolutely will not regret it! If you have questions about doing this, please drop a comment and don’t forget to follow me for updates on new content 🙂