Study Abroad: An Experience that Lasts a Lifetime

Studying abroad can be a daring concept. Will you make friends? Will you pass your classes? Will you like where you live? Will you get homesick? There are so many “what ifs” involved that many students can find themselves talked out of taking the plunge. In this case, they miss the opportunity to dive head first into a world of new experiences and cultures.

Travelling itself is not for everyone and can be particularly challenging for a young adult somewhere in the 18-22 age category. For many students studying abroad, it is their first experience living out of home or even getting on a plane alone. Tasks that the “big adults” of the world take in their stride – grocery shopping, sewing on a button, completing paperwork – can be completely new and occasionally difficult for the “little adults” of the world, who had no idea until now that life could be this hard.

For many students, studying abroad is the first time that they and they alone are solely in charge of themselves. Matters like having to keep check of tickets and passports, making sure they get places on time, deciding what to eat every day, throwing out food by the use by date and formulating some sort of budget are all charges the student studying abroad must undertake alone. It’s an experience that can be the making of a student as they live and make mistakes and figure things out the hard way but ultimately come out the other side feeling like an accomplished, independent individual who now knows that they can handle life as an adult.

Participants in a survey I conducted with exchange students at the University of Leeds revealed some of the difficulties they have experienced on their journey so far. Culture shock, loneliness, difficult flatmates and exams and assignments were aspects of difficulty recurrently listed by international students. However, that’s not to say studying abroad doesn’t have its upsides.

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The universities of the world are taking part in what is becoming an increasingly competitive global education marketplace whereby there is an almost endless and definitely overwhelming list of destinations and institutions from which students can choose. The factors influencing a student’s decision to study abroad are numerous also, with research conducted by the University of South Australia’s School of Management finding that “Students’ desire to travel and the opportunity for fun and excitement are primary motivators for undertaking an educational exchange, along with the host country’s weather, natural environment and tourist attractions.”

The research found that students can constitute up to 20% of all international travellers. When you think about it, that’s a lot of 16-25-year-olds running around the globe for the sake of growth, education, enlightenment and a good time.

It’s not hard to see why, as every country offers its own set of exciting opportunities. Whether it’s the sun and surf of Australia, the food of Italy, the history of England, the rollercoasters of the USA, the ski fields of Canada or the cherry blossoms of Tokyo, each country boasts an impressive set of draw cards that can entice students to take up an international exchange during their years at university.

The concept of studying abroad and the factors that influence an individual’s participation or lack of, are known as push and pull factors. Students are motivated to study abroad because they are pushed by internal forces and are then pulled to select a destination based on an evaluation of the characteristics of the destination and host university.

Push factors like a desire to travel, escape, have adventures, independence, social interaction and excitement while learning are met by host destination/university pull factors like costs, safety, cultural attractions, climate, natural environments, academic reputation, facilities, campus atmosphere, quality and availability of courses and programmes and extra-curricular activities. The research found the most important factor to a student embarking on a study abroad program was the “desire to travel”.

Travel is evidently a big part of exchange for most students. 20-year-old American Maddie Rundlett, currently on exchange at The University of Leeds, has certainly had her fair share of exploring. “So far, I have travelled around England and Scotland mostly, taking day trips and weekend trips to places like York or Edinburgh. I have also had the opportunity to travel to Amsterdam and Paris for weekends with people I’ve met at Leeds. Though I am leaving at the end of the semester, I still have a trip to Madrid planned and then my final week abroad will be spent in Ireland with my family.”

Maddie Rundlett

22-year-old Madison Bland, also on exchange at The University of Leeds from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, details some of his travel experiences so far. “I was fortunate enough to do a solid stint of travel for two months prior to my arrival in Leeds. This took me from Finland down through Eastern Europe and ending up on a beautiful little island in Greece. Since arriving, I have been able to get around and explore interesting places that the UK has to offer such as York, Manchester, Newcastle and some hiking trips through the Yorkshire Dales.”

Madison Bland

As an exchange student myself, I can personally vouch for the attraction of travel in studying abroad. Particularly as an Australian, travelling can be geographically difficult while studying at university. Going on exchange, however, meant I was able to do the two at once. So far, I have travelled around Eastern Europe prior to beginning my study and have done day trips to various locations in the UK during term. Over the Christmas break, I will be travelling to a further eight destinations including Italy, Denmark and Russia.

Claire McMahon

Deciding on a host university at which to study is no simple process. I can tell you myself how long and difficult a process it is to narrow down an exhaustive list, weighing up pros and cons and pining over potential opportunities and potentially missed opportunities. I spent many long days sat in front of my laptop with a list of every university on offer to me, broken up by continent. I researched them all, gradually crossing them off my list because of factors like courses offered, language requirements, location and lack of social opportunities. Very slowly, one by one, my list of nearly 100 was whittled further and further down until my gut (and the opinions of a few close by to me) led me to land on The University of Leeds.

Claire McMahon Stats

The University of Leeds is located in the heart of a city which is a thriving student town. Established in 1904, it is not only one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK, but it was named University of the Year by The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide 2017. The University offers a wide range of courses and modules for students to take and supports hundreds of clubs and societies to promote inclusion and involvement of students – anything from the Harry Potter Society to Karate to Stage Musicals to Model United Nations. There seems to be no end to the ways students can get involved, meet new people and have fun in a safe environment.

According to the University of Leeds Study Abroad Office, “approximately 600-650 (Leeds) students undertake an optional year abroad.” Also, “there are other students who undertake a compulsory period of study abroad, such as language students” who can “choose to either study or work abroad.” As for students coming to the University of Leeds, “around 1200 students attend the University of Leeds through the exchange programme, staying for 1 or 2 semesters”.

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Rundlett explains her reasoning for picking Leeds as a host destination. “I picked the University of Leeds because my advisor at my home school, George Washington University, mentioned that he had colleagues that worked in the media school at Leeds. This led me to take a closer look at the university, whose curriculum had a lot of similarities to my degree program at home. I knew from the start that I wanted to study in the UK, but I ultimately chose Leeds because I had already spent time in the southern part of England in the past and wanted to experience something new.” Bland had studies in his sights also, explaining that he “picked the University of Leeds because of their high standing within the Urban and Environmental studies field. The dedicated institute of Transport at The University of Leeds was seen as a valuable resource to aid my future honours thesis within transport planning. Plus, it helped that everyone said it was simply a brilliant social hub.”

So why should students study abroad at all? Well, according to the Study Abroad Office “Studying abroad is a great way to gain confidence, broaden your horizons, and develop skills and experiences which can improve your future employability. You could even be awarded an international or European variant of your degree which will help you stand out to employers.” And what factors exactly should move Leeds up your list of options? “Studying here will give you the opportunity to attend a Russell Group university in one of the UK’s most vibrant cities. We have a wide variety of modules available across the University and there are pre-sessional English courses to help you develop your English language skills. Our campus is one of the largest in the UK and just a short walk from Leeds city centre. We have 32 000 students, including 7 000 international students from over 140 countries. We pride ourselves on being a diverse and inclusive community. Leeds is a large, affordable and multicultural city, surrounded by easily accessible countryside. It is just two hours by train from London and three hours from Edinburgh. The city centre has over 1000 shops, over 300 bars and restaurants, 16 galleries and museums and four major theatres.”

It’s a pitch that certainly won me over.

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In Improving the Repatriation of Exchange Students (Shata & Shata, 2014), it was revealed that exchange students may find their emotions and thoughts bombarding and overwhelming at times and it has been found that there is a significant relationship between an individual’s satisfaction and his or her recommendation to others. In fact, in a survey I conducted with exchange students at the University of Leeds, it was revealed that 100% of survey respondents would recommend study abroad to a friend, with 90% claiming they would recommend the University of Leeds as a host institution.

While studying overseas, international students are motivated to travel as much as possible in the host country in order to gain a better understanding of the host culture and its people. 65% of survey participants listed travelling as the “Best Experience” they’ve had so far. As such, according to Students’ Immersion Experiences in Study Abroad (Goldoni, 2013), “study abroad is considered one of the major vehicles for helping…learners to become translingually and transculturally competent, open-minded, and tolerant individuals. Study abroad allows students to explore new spaces, challenge themselves and their preconceived ideas, observe other people’s practices with curiosity and suspend judgement for the sake of learning without being afraid to encounter differences in traditions and unfamiliar values and customs.” It also highlighted in What is the attraction for exchange students: the host destination or host university? Empirical evidence from a study of an Australian university (Llewellyn-Smith & McCabe, 2008), that “students recognise the need to gain experience beyond their national borders so that they might develop linguistic, cultural and social competencies that will make them more prepared for the global job market.” Studying abroad therefore is seen as both a life-enhancing opportunity in both the personal and professional sense.

The research also revealed the increasing pressure on universities to become more internationally oriented and to provide their students with a global experience. A university that does this well may be rewarded as international students may recommend the host country as a study destination to other students. According to the Impacts of Study Abroad Opportunities on International Students (Zerman, 2014), the international and cross-cultural experiences of students are vital to the higher education and tourism industry. With an average of 230 000 students per year from European Union members and countries such as Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, a total of almost three million students since 1987, a 450 000 Euro annual budget, the involvement of 33 countries and approximately 4000 institutions, Erasmus is the most successful study abroad program in the world. Participants in my survey came from a multitude of nations – Spain, Australia, Germany, USA, France, Indonesia, China, Uruguay – just to name a few. Such a sample goes to show just how global study abroad as a program really is.

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It has been found that the majority of study abroad participants prefer going to nearby countries to their home country. According to the authors, this close distance was preferred as it enabled lower costs and made it easier to keep contacts in their home country. Individual, academic, social, language and cultural impacts are also contributing factors. I can see how this could be beneficial, but again, as an Australian, “nearby countries” doesn’t offer a a lot of options. I personally felt that I would rather be as far away as I could, to really feel like I was challenging myself, being independent and really going “international” rather than studying a stone’s throw away from home. In fact, it’s being this far away that has made me feel like I am truly becoming a more cultured person. It has even been found that after the study abroad program, students are more interested in international perspectives. Therefore, study abroad programs trigger a students’ international awareness and in doing so consequently contribute to the internationalisation of education and the promotion of the study abroad opportunity. However, expectations from the home institution increase because the students now have experienced various learning environments and styles of teaching overseas, thereby having a comparison to their original form of study. Evidently, survey participants cited different hours, numbers of students in courses, attendance, readings, class structures and assignments as differences between the University of Leeds and their home institution including universities like Ludwig-Maximillian University Munich and Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico. On return home also, students can experience reverse culture shock, whereby assimilation back into their normal life proves to be a difficult transition.

Rundlett feels differently though, explaining “I think it will be very easy to settle in back home. Though I am enjoying my time here and love the people I’ve met, I definitely feel ready to get back into the swing of things at my home university. Though Leeds is somewhat of a city school, I miss the constant buzz of Washington, D.C.” Bland seems to be of the same mindset, telling me “I am indifferent to the idea of going back home. It will be bittersweet to end my time here in Leeds but as a whole, I think I’ll be ready after a year. For financial reasons and the completion of uni, I know I’ll be back with my parents, which will probably be a welcomed time to hopefully have a bit of help on the caring front. Plus, the Gold Coast weather definitely beats Leeds hands down.”

Maybe I’m the odd one out, but I’ve thought a lot about the concept of reverse culture shock and imagine it to be the kind of thing I might experience. Study abroad is such an exciting time, with every day being different through doing new things and meeting new people that I think the sudden routine and mundanity of my average everyday life back in Sydney will be quite the come-down for me. As it was, I found my life back home quite stifling and at times overwhelming. Despite my life on exchange being much more fast-paced than I could ever have imagined, and certainly more than it was at home, I have felt more relaxed and happy and excited while being on exchange than I can remember feeling at home. I don’t think I’m quite ready for all of that to disappear just yet.

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It is evident that at the end of the day, the student’s decision to study or to not study abroad can be difficult and is certainly a long and at times arduous process. It is filled with ups and downs, lost passports, big party nights, lifelong friends and dry cereal because you ran out of milk and forgot to pick some up yesterday on your way home. But regardless, it is an experience that so far, I have yet to tire of. I dare students to make a choice that I believe to be perhaps the biggest and best life choice a young adult can make. I dare students to take the risks and have the determination to get the best out of life and leave their comfort zone behind.

I dare students to take these words of advice from exchange students at Leeds:

  • “Don’t be too nervous about where you will end up, there are always nice people around.” – Kirsten, Netherlands
  • “Be prepared to change your point of view on a lot of things.” – Julie, France
  • “You don’t have to worry, there are a lot of people to help you and the challenges are easier to handle than you might think.” – Leonie, Germany
  • “Do not worry too much; do not plan everything because at the end it’s not going to go how you planned it.” – Melissa, France
  • “Take a coat!” – Aurélien, France

So go on, stick those words of wisdom on your new dorm room wall. I dare you, because studying abroad is one-off experience that lasts a lifetime.

by Claire McMahon – University of Wollongong – Australia

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