Participating in an exchange or study abroad program appeals to many students. It offers an opportunity for travel and cultural enrichment, and it broadens global and self perspective. It also tests a student’s maturity, tenacity, and resilience. A student may be giddy over the idea, but the reality of living in a foreign country with different cultural cues, expectations, and environment, can derail the experience.
For many high school and even college students, a study abroad may be the first time that student has ever traveled outside the United States or traveled alone. Being prepared means more than getting the right “shots” or obtaining a passport. It also means being prepared for culture shock, unexpected situations, and homesickness. Even though students usually bounce back easily from setbacks, they should consider all they might encounter and truthfully examine his or her ability to cope. For example: How squeamish is she around cockroaches? Will he be able to adjust to a much smaller sense of personal space? How will she handle a conflict with her host family? Students and parents need to fully research the country in which the student will travel and learn as much as they can about customs and cultures, then discuss how to handle various situations.
Most exchange or study abroad programs are organized through schools or non-profit organizations such as Rotary International, International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP), AFS-USA, People-to-People, and others. Students should note that it takes a great deal of time and planning to apply for one of these programs, so start months, if not a year, ahead to have a better chance of being placed in a program.
A student who takes the lead in making arrangements for study abroad is more likely to be successful than one who relies on her parents to do so. According to Allison Hodgkins, Resident Director of the CIEE Study Center in Amman, Jordan (CIEE is a non-profit, non-governmental international student exchange organization), too many students have “been coached from a very early age to rely on the intervention of their parents and educators to clear obstacles from their path and to demand facilitation of their expected, or even required,level of success. Thus, when presented with a situation where such resources are unavailable all too many simply flounder.”
Students who already have learned how to manage conflict, accept responsibility for themselves, and are open minded and adaptable, most likely will have an enriching study abroad experience. Even so, it is best for the student to consider different ways of thinking, different foods, different values, different sounds and smells, and different living environments before accepting the exchange offer. If students are flexible and willing to adapt, the experience will prove rewarding and grow his or her maturity.
CIEE’s Hodgkins put it succinctly: “Perhaps the most beneficial and universal learning opportunity for study abroad is the chance to deal with an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, frustrating environment for an extended period of time, and learn you can survive.”