We interrupt your regularly scheduled content with an article, for my university, of honest advice for students interested in studying abroad (in general and at Korea University, where I visited in June.) Take a shot every time I mention the phrase “studying abroad,” unless you’re not 21, in which case you could study abroad outside the US and then take those shots.
What this article isn’t: a hype piece encouraging people who’re already enamored with the idea of studying abroad. Having searched for advice around this time last year, I’ve read a hundred too many of those. What this article is: a recollection of the six stages I went through regarding study abroad, from being completely against it to offering takeaways from some of my most interesting life experiences. Study abroad skeptic, this is for you.
Stage 1: Absolutely not.
The first time I heard of studying abroad in a realistic context—not as a fantasy but as a legitimate commitment for which people set aside summers or semesters—was from peer advisors my freshman year. Several had gone on faculty-led exchanges specific to our program and claimed doing so had been “the best decision of their lives.”
Sure, I thought, unconvinced. I’d hear these words repeated so many times from so many more students that each repetition diluted the message’s impact. What about studying abroad, specifically, made people such fanatics for it?
I doubted people did any “studying,” and if I wanted to just take a vacation, I could do that without the added pretense. In any case, I had limited space in my four-year plan. Dedicating a summer in this manner seemed like a waste of time and money.
Stage 2: As is often the case, I was wrong. Craft your narrative.
Sophomore year, I reconsidered such a hardline stance. There was no single cause of this shift. I’d heard, from upperclassmen, that they’d had interviews in which the interviewers, poor tired souls, were only interested in the upperclassmen’s time abroad. As a writer, I was coming around to the idea of stockpiling more experiences to inform my stories. I also had to take an Asian history course and wanted to take that course in, well, Asia. But most importantly, I realized the importance of narrative to all my endeavors.
Everything is about crafting narratives. Humans love stories, so if you can spin your experiences into a cohesive tale, people are more receptive to it. What’s yours? How could you fit studying abroad into your narrative? You can easily demonstrate personal growth, among other qualities like independence and initiative, with experiences that have shaped your character. Months living in and exploring a different country is rich fodder, something different, for your story.
“Losing” a semester to study abroad is only the right perspective if you have a clear direction and purpose for those periods of time. If you haven’t rigidly planned out each month of your life toward a confirmed job, consider carving out a few months to enrich your narrative.
Stage 3: Being smart about resources
I usually avoid identifying my actions as “smart” because that invites a hurtful response, probably, but it’s important that you’re discerning with resources at this stage. You need to do your research.
The obvious places for me were UT’s credit abroad database, abroad scholarship database, international office peer advisors, participants’ YouTube study abroad vlogs, and the destination program’s website (does it have enrichment programs? What about the budget, housing, and transportation? What are the deadlines?) I’m inserting links I used for Korea University as an example, but your home/destination institutions will certainly have equivalents.
Your mileage may vary with study abroad advisor meetings. I had a helpful advisor who informed me about common student pitfalls, but you shouldn’t bank on handholding. You need to have done the work first by choosing a faculty-led or exchange program, selecting courses, overviewing logistics, and asking your advisor clarification questions.
I’d recommend scheduling an advisor meeting even if you think you’re completely prepared. Mine pointed me to funding sources I hadn’t heard of, some of which I’ve listed below to defray the costs of your program, unpaid internships, housing, and more.
- Benjamin Gilman scholarship: US undergraduates receiving Pell Grants. 2 essays (1 is a proposal for a follow-on service project.) Award: $4000-5000. Deadline: October for spring and early decision summer, March for summer and year.
- International Education Fee Scholarship: School-by-school basis—this is UT’s but many Texas universities also offer it. Award: Varies. Deadline: April.
- Fund for Education Abroad: US undergraduates studying abroad >4 weeks. 2 essays, 1 recommendation letter, FAFSA. Award: $1,250-$10,000. Deadline: January.
- Freeman Asia Scholarship: For US undergraduates seeking internships in Asia. Apply through your home institution—this is UT’s. Award: $3,000-$7,000, depending on the semester.
Stage 4: Thought that was a lot of work? Now you apply, hopefully early.
You don’t necessarily have to start your application too far in advance—the deadline for faculty-led is late fall and exchange early-mid February—but I ultimately needed the extra time.
I met with my advisor mid-September about applying to Korea University and she told me about the Gilman scholarship. Specifically, that there was an early application deadline in less than a week, I had good chances because they prefer underrepresented destinations (Korea versus somewhere in Europe) and ethnicities (in terms of studying abroad,) and I needed a last-minute transcript for the application.
I wrote my UT study abroad app over winter break and continued a frustrating back-and-forth with the Korea University office. Honestly, Korea University’s application process last year could have been much better organized. The site was outdated and difficult to work with. Updates weren’t timely. Many syllabi hadn’t been kept current even after KU had opened the application in January. I couldn’t tell if and what fees I’d paid. I wasn’t sure if there was room in the classes I registered for. Ultimately, after a lot of stress and bugging my peer advisor, I learned this was a consistent experience, so plan accordingly if you’re applying to KU or you want to play it safe.
Stage 5: The actual studying abroad part, finally.
Obviously some of my elaborations will be Korea-specific, but the takeaways are broadly applicable.
- Consider apps you should download beforehand.
For Korea, this would be KakaoMetro (subway app), KakaoTalk (Internet-based chat app because no one texts,) Naver Maps (Google Maps takes you through buildings,) and Google Translate (translates text in pictures.)
- Use the World Traveler Visa card or an equivalent.
Figure out if you’re going to a cash-based country. I was told Korea was, but the only places that wouldn’t take credit cards were underground markets. Credit cards are convenient but most have transaction fees.
- Be mindful of the culture—ask locals or international students at home about common foreigner faux-pas.
Examples: some Koreans consider it rude if you talk “too loudly” on the subway. If you want to go to a nightclub, remember that the dress is much more conservative in areas that aren’t downtown, so avoid the subway. More city dwellers than you’d think speak no English; making Korean friends is a much better investment of your time than Duolingo.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out.
Halfway through the program, we’d formed friend groups, but I still wanted to meet more people. I figured I had nothing to lose and announced in the program’s group chat that I was creating a “spontaneous dinner squad,” and anyone was welcome. The group that assembled this way turned out to be the people with whom I spent the rest of the program.
- Make the most of your time and schedule your work when your friends are occupied.
Our program had weekly field trips, but my friends and I explored Seoul on our own every night until around midnight. Especially because Seoul is the hilliest city I’ve lived in and my dorm (CJ International) sat atop what seemed like a mountain, I was physically and mentally exhausted almost the entire trip. I still wanted to do well in my classes, though, so I had to manage my time.
I have FOMO (fear of missing out,) so I made sure to work when my friends weren’t there to convince me to go exploring. Since I had morning classes, I’d do my reading in the afternoon or wake up early to finish up leftover homework.
Stage 6: Homecoming, or post-abroad depression
Last summer was fun, exciting, and still doesn’t feel real to me. My time in Korea sometimes seems like a separate life, detached from the before and after. I’d never lived and explored on my own so far from home, and I’m proud to look back on my growth.
Study abroad alumni and programs promise you’ll make “friends for life,” which is exaggerated but not wholly untrue. Conversations faded naturally in the months after we returned to our homes across the globe, but I still send the occasional message when I’m reminded of a friend, and I’m always elated to hear back. And I know that if I ever find myself in their town, there will be open arms and a place for me.
Studying abroad takes time, from the decision to the preparation to the experience. But if you make the most of the opportunity, it can be such a gift. Please give it a chance.
If you were linked here from a study abroad site, I’m Nicole, a Business Honors/Plan II junior at the University of Texas at Austin! Ask me more questions about Korea University and being a Gilman Scholar—I write this dry humor (Gen Z humor?) blog so clearly have nothing better to do.
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A random little post from 2015 that people for some reason keep finding me through. Is this my legacy?: Scoliosis Jokes Are Out of Line