Studying abroad? Take tips from these experts, alums

London is a popular study abroad location.

London is a popular study abroad location.

Studying abroad is a popular option for college students seeking a new experience. At American University, for instance, there are 150 different types of programs across the world. Roughly 1,000 students take part in the program every year.

Wondering what to expect when studying abroad? Read on.

Brita Doyle, a study abroad adviser at American, said the most common topics she covers when advising students are academics and cultural adjustments.

“Academics really are the most important part of this because at the end of the day we work to prepare students to study abroad,” Doyle said. “We are preparing students to have a rigorous academic experience.”

Jeff Della Serra, a film and media arts major at American, studied abroad in Prague this spring semester. He was enrolled in a prestigious Czech film school and took electives with Charles University. He said he chose the Czech Republic specifically because American University has a great film program there and that it really suited his major. He got to graduate a year early, because all his credits transferred back from studying abroad, which does not always happen.

Della Serra said that the education system in Prague was completely different.

“At American University, it’s a lot about discussion, involvement and interacting with your professor,” he said. “There, they want you to get involved and they want you to get a hands-on experience, but they view it differently: Most classes are just lecture based, and so you would go all semester being talked at by intelligent professors, which was great, but then they expect you to go out and be able to do it from just hearing it. This kind of experience helped to me to relax. It helped me realize that it’s not all about the grade— it’s about wrapping your mind around things. If someone doesn’t like a project you work on, you do not have to care so much.”

Between making sure that students are aware of what credits will affect their AU degree and making sure that students are on track to graduate, advisors also teach students about the educational differences of living in another country.

“Many of our programs are where students directly enroll in a foreign university environment. For example, they are becoming a student at a University in Argentina, and taking classes with Argentines. Thus, the way class time is structured is differentand the way professors teach is different,” Doyle says.

Cultural differences abroad can also be jarring to students.

Said Della Serra of his experience: “A lot of my professors (at American University) told me that the Czech way of life and the mentality is that they are a kind of quieter people, but they do not sugar coat anything. They will tell you flat out what they think of you, what they think of your projects, and that kind of is all a culture thing. Their culture and their history is really different, which I did not really get to understand until I got there. I spoke to some people who were pretty old but they said, ‘I’ve lived in the same apartment my whole life, but I’ve lived in six different countries’ because they have had so much turnover.

“My professors (at American University) told me ‘Just keep in mind, the way they think is a little different, and they will say things. Do not take it personal—it’s not meant to be mean. It might be a little sarcastic and a little biting. I had one professor who told me that my project was like a vacuum— there was nothing to it and nothing inside of it, and it did not really exist. It was kind of a process, learning to process that. My professors back at home were right.”

Even differences in meal times and work schedules, for instance, can at first throw students off.

“Not everyone works like the United States does,” Doyle said. “Be prepared to be homesick. There are several cultural shock adjustment type things.”

Added Della Serra: “Be patient—you are going to be uncomfortable. It’s not like living at home, which I think people underestimate. Everyone kind of knows that going abroad is going to be a change of pace, I guess they kind of lump that into culture shock but I think that being patient is the key to having a good time. It’s a shame to not go out and enjoy the experience because things are outside your comfort zone. If you are patient, and actively trying to find a way to enjoy it, you will enjoy it. There is something for you even if it doesn’t seem like it.”

Both Doyle and Della Serra agreed that studying abroad is a life-changing experience.

“I think with anything in life often times it’s really hard to understand or appreciate something until you are actually living it,” Doyle said. “I think a lot of students sometimes say, ‘I wish I had known all this and I say I told you those things. Students have so many things going on in their lives that sometimes when we are telling them this information they have finals the next day and the information is not necessarily being absorbed. So many students come back saying it was the best experience of their life. I think that students grow in terms of self-confidence and cultural awareness, having a better understanding for where they’ve come from.”

Added Della Serra: “If you are on the fence about going, you need to go. You need to just fight for it, you need to push, and you really just need to go…You think college brings out your individuality and your independence, where going abroad you will experience things good and bad and that will change you for the better regardless. Once you decide to go, I know it can be hard financially; a piece of advice would be to make the most of it. You always have to be on your guard, in a new setting especially if you do not speak the language, but you need to make the most of it and not just sit in and be tired all the time. You are going to be exhausted, but you need to get up. You need to walk around and you need to do it everyday. Do not waste a single day because the second you leave you are going to want to go right back.”