Having lived in Austria for upwards of seven months, I have come to realize a devastating reality revolving around study abroad. I am taking part in a program that offers either a semester or a whole year for students of all majors and interests. Having taken the year program, I have found the perfect chance to analyze the demographics and typical course of action of the average student studying abroad for a semester. I would also like to offer a new perspective on studying abroad that takes full advantage of all potential experiences and opportunities.
Typical first reactions include: "How many idealized Western European cities can we visit?" or "How many Americans can I meet in my home city so I can feel at home?" These are just a couple of the preliminary feelings for students abroad, who are often there for the first time in their lives. Of course they want to feel safe and contented in their American student housing and go out to clubs in only the most touristy of districts, but it is not conducive to getting anything out of a semester in a foreign land. You may as well go to the nearest metropolitan city from your university in the U.S. for a weekend and go clubbing. I am sure the ratio of Americans to foreigners will be quite similar.
The reasons these outlooks are so influential and at the same time so detrimental have much to do with the amount of time study abroad programs are. Often you find programs avoiding the visa process, therefore limiting the program to 90 days, which is the European law for how long travelers may stay without a visa. Other programs find it more comforting to procure the six month visa even though students often cut them short on account of their next semester beginning too early or they simply not being able to get by without the conveniences and familiarities of the U.S.
I have witnessed first-hand how insignificant education is abroad, as well. Naturally it is a semester that you plan for years in advance to take only electives while abroad leaving ample time to "enjoy" yourself. This includes abuse of your parents credit cards, travelling without experiencing the slightest hint of true cultural appreciation, and last but not least, European clubbing at only the most expensive and popular of venues. "Oh yeah, my friend studying abroad last semester told me about these few places that sound so awesome!" Yes, the trials and tribulations of following those who were here before. Don't get me wrong, you always ought to embrace the advice of those experienced but there is a line to be drawn especially in this context. I can guarantee, unless you are simply unable to acknowledge wasted time, visiting popular destinations for a brief weekend or clubbing at hip spots recommended from people who did the program in previous years will not fulfill any more than a few profile picture slots on Facebook. My favorite is the picture in front of the Louvre art museum in Paris holding up the glass pyramid!
I would never want to be cynical about the experience because I am a 100 percent advocate that every college student should welcome the opportunity. I simply push for students to learn a bit of the language even if it is not necessary and namely to get away from the comfort zone of kids in your program. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet friends who live in these countries we visit and have friends there to visit later in life, perhaps when your cubical becomes too much to bear. Honestly, if you do not care about that and simply want to party, I recommend staying home and doing the same thing there in order to give someone else that is eager for the opportunity a chance. The number of activities and possibilities at your disposal are endless. For example, couch surfing is free, more often than not safe, and your host will often show you around and introduce you to people. You can also rough it and enthuse a random Eastern European country without a place to stay and find places to stay simply by the good graces of natives. I don't recommend this for the dead of winter, but it is always a memorable experience.
Forever, will you look back on your experience abroad and comment on how wild and frivolous it was. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you can confide that you learnt a thing or two about the people living there. Maybe you even spent weekends staying at friend's houses in the countryside eating native foods and starting comparative conversation with families you stay with. That is something I can guarantee you will never forget or take for granted. There are more experiences than you can imagine at the tips of your fingers abroad, but clinging to your American buddies will never open up these opportunities. You only get this chance once in your life, don't regret it.
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