Times are tough. The economy is a mess. Recent graduates — like myself — are facing long lines, unanswered applications, and unpaid internships. We live in an era where four-year colleges and universities are in decline. Simultaneously, community colleges and technical certification programs are being hailed as a practical option for young people, a possible fix that will save students thousands of dollars and send them straight into steady jobs. Just this past week, the New York Times reported on Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s proposed bill, a piece of legislation that would provide two free years of community college or technical school to any state resident with a high school diploma or equivalent.
That’s great news. Haslam’s proposal will insure a better-educated, better-employed workforce for Tennessee, as well as for other states sure to follow in Tennessee’s footsteps.
But amidst all of this talk on cutting higher-education costs and ramping up more utilitarian programs, many essential components of the educational experience are in danger of suffering. I think the most essential of these is studying abroad.
And it’s easy to understand why study abroad is threatened by the ax. Korea, Germany, Argentina? How am I supposed to think about South Africa or Nepal or Australia when I’m still trying to figure out my tuition for this semester? Or when I’m trying to get the best job available in the shortest time possible? How am I going to learn another language? Even if I do plan on spending years in school, wouldn’t my time be better spent taking coursework that actually means something or pursuing high-powered internships? How will running off to another continent get me into my dream law/med/grad program? With everything else I have going on, is study abroad even worth the effort?
Well, my answer — and the purpose of this blog — is a resounding yes. Going abroad is worth it, regardless of what the it is (time, money, a divergence in your five-year plan). Whether for study or work purposes, or just for good, old-fashioned adventure, getting on that plane is within your reach and it may just turn out be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
Why? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard about the “fluffy” stuff: you’ll grow as a person, learn tolerance, find yourself — whatever that means. And while that’s all true, there are some other reasons to set sail for other shores, reasons you might have never even considered.
Here are a few:
1) It’s the twenty-first century.
Hey, we live in international times. Anyone who says differently, in the words of a beloved cult classic, is selling something. According to CNNMoney, the hottest job skill right now is the ability to speak a foreign language. Apple, the State Department, Amazon, the NYPD, and the Army are just some of the institutions and top Fortune 500 companies looking to hire bilingual employees. Hospitals, schools, and courts are searching voraciously for the same. Translators and interpreters are among the top 15 fastest growing occupations in the country; without including military jobs, the field is expected to grow 42 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is a lot.
So, basically, globalization is a real thing that has a crucial impact on today’s workforce. And what’s the best way to learn a language? Well, going to where they speak it, of course.
2) It pays.
There are more reasons to cross national borders than just to take classes. Yes, there are ways to make money while abroad, and actual opportunities that will bolster up your resume so you can come back to the domestic job market swingin’ — if you don’t decide to stay, of course.
English teachers are in high demand all across the globe. Sometimes programs require a certificate in teaching English as a second language (which can even be earned online in the space of a few months at sites like TEFL online) and sometimes they don’t. The pay might be decent, or it might be low. The commitment might be for two years, a year, or just the summer. There are a trillion options to get to work teaching your native language to hungry students from pole to pole. While you need to carefully research these options and go with an institutionally recognized program, there should be a situation out there that’s perfect for you.
Of course, teaching English isn’t the only way to put a little cash in your pocket while on foreign soil. The U.S. State Department offers a myriad of paid international internships for citizens (mostly students) that stretch from a duration of a few months to a semester or a year, as well as many job possibilities. Plus, there are thousands of more general opportunities to go abroad as an au pair, or a domestic/childcare assistant that lives with a local family in his or her country of choice. This option is particularly popular in Europe, where an au pair is expected to work part time and study part time. We should also mention the hospitality industry, another goldmine for U.S. workers looking to get into a foreign economy.
Really, though, internships or long-time work overseas can be found in just about any field, from health services to engineering to accounting. Check out GoAbroad’s job section to keep up to date on opportunities in your area of interest.
3) Even if you don’t get paid, studying abroad can be cheaper than studying domestically.
Hey, folks, it’s a big world out there, and lots of other places approach higher education differently than we do in the United States. While a semester at a state college or private university might cost anywhere from $10,000-$30,000, living costs not included, a semester in another country can run far under that tab — even when factoring in living expenses. Whether you want to take classes on ecology in Thailand or international business in Chile, you can earn credits that count toward your home institution while shouldering less of a financial burden. And that’s a fact.
Additionally, most schools have ample resources for students that are looking to take some time out of country. Just bring it up with your advisor and be surprised by the tools he or she reveals to you. Or if you aren’t surprised, and the tools are few, there are plenty of external resources available to you beyond the doors of your college. Many trusted study abroad organizations offer their own scholarships and financial aid, including the School for International Training (SIT), the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE), and International Studies Abroad (ISA). They even have financial options for globally-minded high schoolers. The U.S. government also funds international scholarships and fellowships, which can be found among the options listed on the Institute for International Education’s webpage. Because these awards are linked to accredited organizations and institutions, the coursework you complete through them should count toward your U.S. degree.
4) Don’t want to work or study? There are options for you, too.
International volunteering is a big deal, and still gets you the time on the ground you need to learn a new language and experience a new culture (refer back to today’s hottest job skill, found under the first bullet point). What’s more, many volunteer opportunities are free or low-cost, and they come in a million flavors.
One option that has gotten a lot of attention in the past year or so is WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. And really, the concept behind WWOOF is pretty awesome: in exchange for a day’s work on a farm, you receive free board and lodging. Assignments can range from days to years; you can even take a friend and travel from location to location within WWOOF’s reach of 53 countries. If this sounds interesting but a little daunting, a handy guide for first-time WWOOFers is available here.
For those of us who aren’t farmers, many other international volunteer positions also cover living costs, including conservation volunteers in Australia and New Zealand and trek guides in Europe. Help Exchange Worldwide hosts a phenomenal site that lists all kinds of organizations looking for assistance, from religious institutions to schools to farms to hostels to construction firms. And that’s only scratching the surface of what’s out there.
5) Besides adding meat to your resume, going abroad — for whatever reason — will change your life. Guaranteed.
This might be one of the “fluffy” reasons I was trying to avoid; sorry about that. Okay — it definitely is. But it’s so real that it must be mentioned.
When you go abroad, you will grow up. Your routine will be broken, and you will feel exhilarated and sleep-deprived and lonely and wonderful and overwhelmed and magnificent. You will be forced to rely on yourself like you haven’t had to rely on yourself before. Even if you have been living on your own since you were 18 (or before), even if your parents haven’t contributed a dime to your education, even if you have signed your own apartment lease — all attributes which, in one way or another, you could have applied to me when I took off for South America in 2012 — you will be forced to push yourself to new heights daily. Study, work, volunteer, tutor, chat, observe, party, take pictures, write, surf, horseback ride . . . regardless of what you participate in, stick it out and you will become more confident. You will trust more in your own capacity to do and to think. I’m not sure if that’s finding yourself or actually making yourself, but whatever it is, it’s worth every cancelled flight, every cultural misunderstanding, every uncomfortable night and language mishap. These skills — confidence, determination, decision-making — will stay with you and aid you for the rest of your life.
Whether you want to broaden your future, access new opportunities, make money, save money, or push yourself to new levels of personal/professional performance, taking that step beyond U.S. borders is tremendous way to accomplish your goal. I hope you’ll stick beside me on Wanderwoman as we share ways to make that goal a reality: advice, experiences, dreams, and thoughts.
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Why would you go abroad – for study, work, travel, personal gratification, or some other reason that I completely missed? Why wouldn’t you? Have you? What did going abroad do for you?