Studying Abroad: More than College Partying Overseas8 min read
On Jessie Galioto-Grebe’s first day in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Denver resident felt a litany of emotions – she got lost, was hungry, tired and jet lagged, not to mention a little overwhelmed. There may have even been some tears.
But all of this preceded what would become a journey not just across the Pond, but one of personal growth and reflection. It was the beginning of her study abroad experience, an experience that has had a deep, lasting positive impact for literally hundreds of thousands of students through the years.
Not just an excuse to party internationally
Some people view studying abroad as a party overseas for college students and, in very few cases, that may be true.
“Unfortunately, some students do use study abroad as an excuse to take a vacation or party in another country, because it’s much easier to get financial support for the endeavor when it’s labeled study abroad,” says Shelley Story, a former associate dean for student development at Gonzaga University in Florence, Italy.
“I believe those students are still in the minority, but the stories of partying and other adventures abroad are much more salient than stories of having forged real friendships with natives, or learning something really important about oneself. So it’s the exciting, embellished, edgy stories that get told and retold.”
There’s an adjustment period
No matter where someone chooses to study abroad, they’ll likely need some time to get acclimated, find their way
and, quite frankly, get over their culture shock.
That’s exactly what Galioto-Grebe, a marketing manager for a Denver tech start-up, experienced at the start of her education abroad in Northern Ireland.
“Settling in was a longer process than I expected. On my first night I got physically lost, but it was a reflection of my emotional state as well,” she recounts. “But the students in my house, as well as the Ambassadors from Queen’s University, were beyond helpful. Once I was able to unpack, get used to campus, and get through my first week of orientation, I was excited for the new adventure to really get started.”
After her first week in Belfast, Grebe says she felt comfortable and even start exploring the city on her own in addition to joining clubs at the University and making friends.
Pardon my French
One major challenge many students face and must overcome is the language barrier.
Grebe chose to study in an English-speaking country – a potential language barrier made her nervous and she felt foreign language wasn’t her “strong suit.” However, she still found herself dealing with a communication learning curve.
“I specifically went to an English-speaking country because I was nervous about a language. However, the Northern Irish accent is very challenging, and took more time to get used to than I expected,” she says. “When I left though, I could tell you if a person was from the Republic of Ireland or the North and if they were from an urban or rural area based on accent.”
However, the language barrier isn’t always a scary challenge for some students preparing to study abroad. One such person is Sabrina Sucato, who is currently a teaching assistant at Collegio Rotondi, a private school in Gorla Minore, Italy, as well as a marketing and public relations intern for The Holiday Girl.
Sucato purposefully chose to study abroad in Italy as a way to master her Italian-speaking skills – she was a double major in English and Italian at Vassar College with the desire to study abroad to improve her Italian while also learning about the culture.
“I was more excited than apprehensive to use Italian on a daily basis. My goal was to become fluent, so I wanted to practice as much as possible. Going to the grocery store or to a cafe for the first time was a little nerve-wracking, but it was gratifying to order and pay for everything successfully,” she says.
All of Sucato’s classes were in Italian, which meant she had to regularly speak the language in academic and social settings. It wasn’t all Italian though – she got breaks from learning and speaking the language with her fellow American students in the program.
Learning in and out of the classroom
Although the consensus is that college courses typically pose an academic challenge to students regardless of what country or university is offering them, both Galioto-Grebe and Sucato said they found their classes while studying abroad to be more difficult than they anticipated.
“Classes were much more challenging than I expected,” Galioto-Grebe says. “I just tried to be open to a new style of learning and didn’t give up. I reached out to (teaching assistants) and joined a study group – things I would have been too proud to do in the U.S., but while abroad relied on them for good information.”
Galioto-Grebe selected her courses carefully to make the most of her experience abroad with all of them having a connection to Ireland and Northern Ireland in some way. Her classes included Irish and Scottish literature, Celtic mythology, and 19th Century Irish history.
“All of these helped to shape my experience and offered context to the day trips I took or the conversations I had with locals,” Galioto-Grebe says.
For Sucato, it wasn’t so much the subject matter that posed a challenge in the classroom, it was the teaching style.
“I was accustomed to small class sizes and seminar-style lessons. In Italy, the classes are massive and generally lecture-based,” she explains. “Going to class the first time was a bit of a shock, but I appreciated the chance to take a class that would never be offered back at Vassar.”
Her simple solution to this challenge? Attending every class and regularly studying.
However, the learning did not stop when class was over for the day – it extended well beyond the walls of the lecture halls.
“I learned a lot about other cultures, politics, languages –subjects I may not have necessarily taken a class in, but because my house abroad boarded 10 other international students. Many of our nights were spent playing games or talking, sometimes about cultural concepts and mindsets that may not have ever developed in a shallow classroom conversation,” Grebe says.
Not only is studying abroad a learning experience, but it has shown to be a catalyst for students’ personal growth.
“Research shows that studying abroad has multiple positive effects, including increased self-confidence, increased tolerance for ambiguity, increased maturity, and a lasting impact on a student’s worldview and political and social awareness,” Story says. “My own experience and observation shows that study abroad helps students become more resourceful, more curious, more open minded, and more self-directed.”
According to Story, the length of time students stay abroad and the design of the program they’re enrolled in both have an impact on how study abroad programs’ benefits play out – as does how much a student does or doesn’t prepare before departing.
What is it that fuels this personal growth?
“Many students have lived a life that was fully scheduled for them until they go abroad,” Story explains. “Studying in another country rarely offers the same depth and breadth of coordinated activities available on most college campuses.”
Additionally, Story says that it’s unlikely that students studying abroad will live in a dorm full of other students of the same age and background.
“Students learn to explore. They learn what they’re really interested in. They learn what scares them. They learn where they choose to spend their time and energy when there isn’t a menu of prepackaged choices set before them. They learn where the edges of their own independence, confidence, and risk-taking behaviors are. They begin to see themselves as the author of their own lives rather than a character in a story that’s already written,” Story says.
Aside from new challenges, students may face similar challenges when they’re abroad to what they’d face at home – illness, loneliness, a medical emergency, a family emergency, financial struggles – but simply being abroad adds to that challenge.
“The difference is that while abroad, students don’t have the same access to their safety net. The systems they know how to use to solve their problems aren’t available. So a challenge that would be small at home becomes much more daunting while abroad,” Story explains.
This is exactly what Grebe experienced while studying abroad in Northern Ireland.
“I became more confident, navigating in other countries alone, or becoming the leader of a group when necessary. I learned how to ‘just do it,’” she says. “Whenever I wanted to travel somewhere or go to a club meeting or an event in the city, I found that somehow abroad made me more inclined to just go do those things, regardless of if anyone else wanted to go or not.”
Sucato also felt that studying abroad ignited her personal growth while also learning a lot about herself.
“I learned how resilient and independent I am. I did a lot on my own, from traveling and making academic decisions to grocery shopping and meeting new people,” she says. “It was gratifying to realize that I could make it in another country.”
Sucato also learned how much she loves experiencing new cultures and fully immersing herself in a different lifestyle, which may be why she’s back living and working in a small town outside of Milan.
When asked what advice she would give a student considering studying abroad, Sucato’s answer is simple: “Go!”
“Studying abroad is a life-changing experience, as cliché as it sounds,” she says. “Not only do you learn more about a new culture and get to experience a completely different way of life, but you also learn more about yourself. You can really focus on what you like and don’t like and what you need and don’t need in your life. You become much more of a minimalist when you study abroad, which is something I really appreciated. I learned to prioritize what was most important to me.”