Study abroad: what’s the gain?

Yesterday the White House hosted an event for travel bloggers, and on the agenda was a push to get more American students to study abroad.

As I see it, there are two reasons American students are not studying abroad in larger numbers. These are:

  1. Financial reasons (exorbitant cost of American university tuition to begin with and a huge wealth gap)
  2. Social reasons (fear of leaving home/the familiar, concern it will detract from their education, not wanting to leave friends/family, etc)

The first reason I will not address, except to say that I think the American government has some big steps to take in order to make higher education universally accessible in the States, which right now it absolutely is NOT.

But as far as the second reason, our socially ingrained avoidance of leaving our own country? Well, here are my two cents on study abroad, the overall experience and what I gained (or didn’t).

The Ex-Pattery Begins

In university I studied DOUBLE-ABROAD!! What in the world is double-abroad, you may ask? Well, it is a term I just came up with to describe my situation while in school.

At the University of British Columbia in Canada I was already an international student for the duration of my studies, even though it was just a hop and a skip over the boarder to my hometown near Seattle, Washington. So, when it came to the end of year two (that’s Canadian for sophomore year) and everyone had exchange on their minds I had to ask myself: I’m already a foreign student, is there a point to doubling up my foreign-ism?

I decided that I would give it a shot, because – hey – I don’t like to sit still.

Then it was a matter of where to go. I came up with two criteria:

  1. It can’t be an English-speaking country (been there, done that)
  2. I have to be able to study in a language I know (English or French)

This basically landed me with a shortlist that included France and Scandinavia. In the end I don’t remember why I chose Uppsala University, but I suspect they had a bit more online information about their courses than the other universities.

Or it could have been because, according to my fourth grade journal, it was my lifelong dream to go to Sweden. I’m not sure.1995journal

Off to Sweden I go?

I padded over to the International House (where, despite being an international student, I had never been) and chatted with the people there, eventually leaving with the e-mail address of a biology student who had been at Uppsala the year before. We got in touch and she suggested we meet for fika. Whatever that is. (Turns out it is Swedish for coffee and cinnamon rolls – yes!)

We met up, and – in some attempt to be diligent or something – I had a short list of vague questions to ask, mostly about transfer credit. But from the moment we sat down at the table I hardly got a word in edgewise. I sat and ate my cinnamon roll while she enthusiastically jumped from tangent to tangent on all the events there would be, all the student nations I had to drink beer at, all the day-trips I could go on, the people I would meet, the adventures to be had.

She jotted notes for me, and in some uber-nerdy way I was secretly SO impressed when she doodled at the top of the paper: XΔ (Δ, or delta, is the scientific shorthand for ‘change’).

I finally got to ask my question “So… did… like, how was it with your credits? Did it all transfer ok?

She paused with her cinnamon roll, mid bite. She just stared at me and uttered these critical words that I can’t say I fully grasped the meaning of at the time, though the implications were clear:

“Even if I didn’t get a single credit, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”

My scientific, logical brain didn’t get this. Add up tuition fees for a year, flights, costs of living and combine that with the fact that I couldn’t offset any of those by working… and after the equals sign I sure didn’t see how not getting the credits would still keep me in the plus.

But I took a leap of faith. The way she spoke was a step shy of a religious zealot. Or maybe even just a half step. But of course I double checked on the whole credits thing, just to be sure.

A few months later I was at the airport: bags packed for a year in Sweden.

And of course it was all worth it. I got my credits, but, you know, I actually understand what she meant now.

So let’s tally it all up.

(One year tuition) + (Flights) + (Accommodation) ≤ (Super experience) ?

What did I get from my exchange year?

The expected:

  1. A full year’s worth of credit-points in upper-level biology
  2. Homesick – luckily it was a mild bout and I recovered easily

The unexpected:

  1. A couple dozen stamps in my passport and an incurable case of wanderlust
  2. Some of my best friends (even now, nearly 10 years later)
  3. Course trips to the Canary Islands and Morocco
  4. My first scientific publication
  5. A fully paid PhD position (never underestimate the importance of making contacts)
  6. A whole new world view

What didn’t I get:

  1. Lasting romance and, eventually, kids (though statistically it seems like maybe I should have)
  2. Less debt (I am eternally grateful to my parents for fully financing my exchange year – a big ask – as well as the tuition for my entire undergraduate education)
  3. Regret

And in the end I even ended up in the black financially. As a direct result of being a good student (or a fun person – ask my former supervisor and one of my current best friends what her motivations were), I was asked to do a thesis project during my last quarter in Sweden. Then when I went to apply to masters’ programmes a year later I called her up for a letter of recommendation. She said ‘yeah… well… I can write you one I guess. But check your email first.’

I got off the phone and looked. She had sent me an announcement for a fully funded/paid PhD position. Immediately I applied, and found myself accepting an offer of employment as a doctoral student a couple months later.

And ya know – even if I didn’t get the PhD position, or the credits for that matter, I would do it again. In a heartbeat. 

To understand this feeling you have to have been there. So go ahead, go there. You might not get it now, but you won’t look back and think ‘Gee, I wish I had been back home taking all the normal 300-level courses with everyone else, attending frat parties and playing beer-pong. Life would have been so much better.’ Besides, you always have freshman, sophomore and senior years for that.

And yes, you’ll miss your friends. But they will be there when you get back. And at the end of the year, your new friends will go back home, too. And thus begins your life of traveling, visiting and never-ending cultural exchange.

As I finish this post, I have to briefly reflect that at the moment I am sitting in France on a two-month scientific writing scholarship I received from a Swedish association. An exchange for grown-ups, as it were. That makes me an American in France via Sweden, via Canada.

Go on exchange. And then never stop.

Ashley and I met in Sweden in 2006. This is us in India in 2008. Next spring we hope to meet up again, probably in Indonesia.
Ashley and I became fast friends as exchange students in Sweden in 2006. This is us in India in 2008. We’ve seen each other every couple of years since then. Next spring we plan to meet up again, probably in Indonesia. Proximity brought us together, but distance doesn’t keep us apart.

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