I studied abroad in Chile for all of 2005. It was half of my junior year and half of my senior year at UC Berkeley, and it changed my life. Yes, that may sound a bit cliché, but it really did change my perspective on education, history, politics, and my place in the world.
I thought back to that year as I read A Student Guide to Study Abroad, a new book by Stacie Berdan, Dr. Allan Goodman, and Sir Cyril Taylor. This is the book I should have received for my 19th or 20th birthday, before that year in Chile (when I was 21).
It’s a practical guide that covers just about everything a student needs to know about study abroad. The authors have taken special care to include the perspectives of a diverse array of students, including a student with muscular dystrophy who studied abroad in Tanzania, a gay student who lived with a family in Buenos Aires, a black student who had amusing encounters with Chinese cab drivers (at first the driver didn’t believe she was American, but then he had “a complete moment of clarity” and said “Oooooo I know! Barack Obama daughter!!!” Her response? “Yes, sir. You are right.”)
The book lists lots of different scholarship programs (like the Fulbright, Gilman and Boren scholarships) and includes anecdotes from dozens of students from a wide range of socioeconomic and academic backgrounds, who describe their experiences studying in just about every country you can imagine.
The book covers the entire experience: why study abroad is so important in this globalized era, how to decide if it’s right for you, how to choose the right program, how to figure out the financials, how to prepare, how to immerse yourself in the local culture, how to stay safe and healthy, how to make the most of your time, how to transition back into life at “home,” how to highlight your study abroad experience on a resumé… and more.
Reading this book reminded me of how much support I had when I studied abroad. My parents were both super-supportive, both in terms of their own histories (Dad studied in Brazil in high school, Mom studied in Germany in college) and the finances (though I think it cost about the same as normal tuition. Many people think study abroad is expensive, but it can be affordable, especially if you pick the right program and apply for scholarships.)
I also had support from other people. A high school English teacher told us that the University of California was especially good for study abroad, with plenty of options for academic credit and financial aid. Cal was incredibly supportive — I had some registration problems while I was abroad, and my advisor stood in line on my behalf to get it resolved. If I hadn’t had all that support, studying abroad would have been much harder! This book would have been an especially useful resource.
The last two chapters, about what happens after study abroad, would have been most helpful to me when I was in college.
As I told Cate Brubaker when she interviewed me for her Re-Entry Reality podcast, going back to Berkeley after my year in Chile was hard!
… when I left Chile at the end of 2005, I started preparing to go home basically as I was packing; I’ve never been one to plan really far ahead. As I was organizing my stuff and giving things away and saying farewell, I tried to summarize my experience in one sentence. The sentence I came up with was: “Chile’s a country of contrast between rich and poor, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, city and country side and as an international student, I was able to see the extremes of all of these different contrasts often in the same day.” And so I was trying to mentally process this year that had been amazing that had totally changed my life, changed my perspective and I really had grown up a lot in one year. I was 21 at the time. And then I left Chilean summer in December and landed in California winter and spent Christmas with my parents in the snow.
But then the reverse culture shock really hit me when I went back to college. I was living in the same sorority where I had lived before I had gone abroad and the rules and the drama really got to me. It felt so petty after having worked on international micro-enterprise training projects and having seen all these enormous peaks and mountains to come back and deal with drama.
Another thing that really stressed me out was that I overcommitted myself. I was in my final semester and I had this fear of missing out on the opportunities I’d only have access to in college. I needed two classes to graduate, but I signed up for five, because I was like ‘oh! I want to learn more about social enterprise’, ‘oh! I want to take this student-taught women’s leadership class’.
But about a month into that semester, I got really burned out. I just didn’t have the energy to deal with it all; I was just like ‘why did I do this to myself?’
I’m glad the book gives tips for dealing with re-entry, especially how to frame your study abroad experiences as you move forward and apply for jobs.
The book motivated me to search for opportunities to study abroad again. A masters’ degree in Europe could be fascinating! (Shhh…)
In short, this book is a must-read for every college student and their parents. It’s inspiring, practical, and vivid. It’s $14.95 (paperback) / $5.95 (Kindle) on Amazon.
P.S. Should More Americans Study Abroad? This is the topic of a recent New York Times Room for Debate section that features many of the contributors to this book. The debate is lively; feel free to add your opinion.