For those of us who want to give students an edge, we need to do more than just encourage them to go to college and do well. We need to consider creative and non-traditional options that keep up with the times and trends. Going to college abroad is the path I chose. This is not the same as “study” abroad, which is usually only a few weeks to a semester. College abroad involves living in a foreign country for a year or longer and pursuing a degree.
After finishing my bachelor’s degree at Knox College in Illinois, I wanted to continue my education, learn a new language, and travel. But with a mountain of debt, a low-paying job, and only two weeks of vacation a year, it seemed like an impossible dream. Notwithstanding, I did it. Today, I have a Master’s degree from Germany, and I’m almost finished with my PhD. I’ve lived in three foreign countries on two continents, become fluent in a second language (and proficient in a third), gained a massive amount of real world experience to complement my degrees, and learned the art of intercultural communication and sensitivity, without accumulating any additional debt. And I was even paid during a portion of my time abroad.
Directly enrolling in a foreign university is certainly challenging, but there are significant benefits. Some of these benefits may include: having little or no debt upon graduation; becoming fluent in one or more foreign languages; developing transnational awareness, knowledge, and skills; completing a degree in a shorter timeframe than in the US; and of course, traveling and seeing more of the world.
After spending the last five years in a university setting in Germany, I’ve had the occasion to interact with numerous American students studying abroad. While they are bright and motivated, it seems that many of them are using their time abroad as a vacation, an excuse to take advantage of Europe’s lower drinking age, and just as they’re getting used to German culture and feeling comfortable enough to conduct a conversation in German, their short stint abroad is over and they’re booking their flight home.
Besides the knowledge gained from coursework, the independence gained from living abroad for a long period of time is highly marketable in a global economy. In my experience, students at foreign universities tend to be more independent than American students of the same age, largely because they have done multiple international internships, studied abroad more than once, and often times are enrolled in a school outside their home country. In a deeply globalized market, these are the folks who American graduates are competing with for jobs.
Not only has it helped me build my credentials, going to college abroad is probably the smartest financial decision I’ve ever made. I was able to put my student loans from my bachelor degree into deferment, avoid more debt, and earn my Master’s degree without paying a dime in tuition. Many universities abroad do not charge tuition, and if they do, the price tag is often much less than the average American price tag. Student loan debt is unheard of in many parts of the world. And while international students are sometimes charged tuition, there are plenty that do not.
Internationalization is an important goal for many institutions, and therefore schools that charge tuition to international students usually offer plenty of scholarships and other financial aid. When I was getting paid a generous stipend as a PhD student, I took my loans out of deferment and started to pay them down. And with a budget-traveler’s frame of mind, I was able to travel to over 30 countries (and counting!) during my college abroad experience.
I truly believe that as long as people, money, and jobs move rapidly across borders, the demand for deeper international experience will continue to grow. Study abroad programs are helpful, but given the timeframe, they may not be enough. Fewer than 2% of American students study abroad for an average of eight weeks. This is simply incomparable to what many non-American students are doing. If we are serious about competing in the future global economy, we have to open up more and longer international opportunities for our students. Americans have a natural disadvantage; we are not surrounded by many foreign countries, we are not forced to learn a language when we travel, and we are taught to believe from a young age that college as well as foreign travel is wildly expensive. Savvy and forward-thinking faculty members and advisors will encourage students to consider directly enrolling in a foreign institution to further their education.
This post was submitted by Holly Oberle, author of College Abroad.