When I was in high school researching potential universities, studying abroad was one of the things I was most excited about when I thought of the adventures I would have. I knew that I wanted to study language, and most colleges required language students to study abroad for at least 3 weeks to one semester depending on whether the student was majoring or minoring in the language.
When I chose to attend Luther College here in Decorah, IA, studying abroad was constantly on my mind because I was so excited that the chance of studying abroad was finally set in stone. At Luther, first-year students are not allowed to study abroad, but were encouraged to start researching programs if the students planned on studying abroad during their sophomore year.
As a freshman, I honestly had no idea what I was in for and realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what I really wanted. I’m now a junior, and I still am unsure of some things. In this post, I want to walk through the stages that all students who study abroad, including myself, go through when planning a study abroad experience especially a first one. Its purpose is to hopefully make things a little bit easier and less stressful for those going through these same stages that, in the end, are a little too extreme.
1. You ATTEND every single study abroad fair at your college and BOMBARD study abroad websites.
Don’t go crazy before you even start. This is not the first step in your process. You need to really think about and understand what you want to pursue before getting ahead of yourself. Identify the issue, then you are free to explore, but do so carefully.
2. You GATHER every book and pamphlet of your college and every study abroad company even if they are unrelated to your plan of study.
I get it. You’re excited. Ecstatic even. And that causes you to dive into the wonderful world information. Too much information. Before you get in too deep, take a step back, and know that you will be much more successful in finding the right information if you collect small amounts over time and organize it properly.
3. You READ every book and pamphlet you gathered but for all the wrong reasons.
Wouldn’t it be so cool to visit The Great Wall of China!? And what about the French cuisine?! That would taste amazing! Well, yes it would, but those aspects of studying abroad are far less important than the country, region, courses, price, housing, etc. when trying to choose a program even if you are studying Chinese or French. Learn your priorities, and stick to them.
4. You NARROW the hundreds of programs down to around 5.
Okay, this isn’t so bad, right? You spent all that time researching and reading, and now, there are only 5 left. You know every single detail about each of these 5 programs, and you’ve managed to keep the locations in line with your plan of study, but besides that, the reasons for your choices have very little logic. But logic doesn’t matter when your studying abroad, right? Wrong. These final 5 programs may not be the best choice for you. Evaluate each of these options intelligently and don’t let your excitement get the best of you.
5. You REALIZE what the true purpose of the process actually is.
So far, learning every single detail about every single program from everything single company has been so much fun! But what do you do now? Do you remember why you were searching so hard for study abroad programs? Well, you didn’t in the last 4 stages, but now you do.
6. You FREAK OUT and CHANGE your major to something completely irrelevant because it doesn’t require you to study abroad.
Why are people telling you that you’ll be living thousands of miles away from your friends, family, and home for 4 months? What do they mean you’ll be living with a random family who speaks a different language in a country excessively different from your own? And you’ll be taking classes, too? What?! I guess you’ve always like philosophy, right? Plato and Socrates will be proud.
Readers, if you take anything away from this post, let this be the one thing: At this point, just breathe. Remember that studying abroad will basically be your only chance at traveling and growing as a person before you will be tied down with responsibilities. If you do freak out, try not to go as far as changing your major, but if you do, just be sure to change it back in time because you know that philosophy is not your passion.
7. You try to RATIONALIZE to everyone and yourself why you made that decision, but can’t.
It’s over. You’re finished. But it’s fine, right? You tell people that philosophy has always been your passion. Learning a language and growing as a person through immersing yourself in a different culture is not important at all.
Stop. Deep down inside, you know that philosophy is not your passion, and that being bilingual is a great skill. You also know that the experiences you have studying abroad will stay with you forever.
8. You (eventually) COME TO YOUR SENSES and CALM DOWN, changing your major back.
Alright, that’s better. Here comes the logic, finally. This is where the stages take a turn for the better. Being calm is wonderful since you haven’t experienced that emotion at all yet during this process. At this point, it is best to really rethink what you want like you should have done in stage 1. This would also be a great time to take a break from it all and focus on something else for a little while to let your brain rest before going at it again.
9. You RESTART your search, but this time with LOGIC.
Perfect! This is just what you need. Get rid of all books and pamphlets that have nothing to do your area of study, and forget everything you thought you knew about the programs that are left. While some of that information may have been important in your search, it’s likely that it all got mixed together in your head. There are likely still many program options, but at least you can research them with logic now.
10. You SEARCH for APPROPRIATE programs considering aspects that are important to your experience.
Look for aspects such as courses, housing, cost, and location. These things are the most important when starting your search and will help you have the most amazing experience while getting the most from it. Sure it’s fun to see what the excursions are and what the food is like, but categorize these things as minor details.
11. You CHOOSE 3-5 programs, and EVALUATE each one closely.
Great! You’re getting even closer now, but don’t freak out like last time! Remember, just breath. You’ve chosen your top program choices, and now it’s time for the next step. The best part is that you don’t have to completely eliminate any of your choices unless you feel that some just won’t work. You can put them in order from your most favorite to your least favorite, apply for as many of them as you like and hope for the best.
12. You MAKE FINAL DECISIONS and APPLY (which is a process in itself).
The decisions of which of these 5 programs to discard and which to apply are still not to be taken for granted. Once those decisions are made, which may take quite a bit of time, the application process is also time consuming. When applying, be thorough and don’t hurry through them. Ask questions if you need to and be patient. Also, the sooner you apply the better.
13. You WAIT and WORRY (which is normal).
Again, don’t start to freak out while your applications are being processed. It will take time, and you will be notified whether or not you got accepted into a program. So if it has been a while since you’ve heard any information, it doesn’t mean that you were not accepted. It just means that it takes time to review applications. It’s okay to worry and feel a little stressed, but that’s just the normal process.
14. Guess what? You get ACCEPTED!
It was well worth the wait, wasn’t it? And worth the process as well! Now’s the time to stop and relax. Enjoy the moment, and be proud of all of the hard work you’ve done to earn your acceptance in to at least one of the programs. If you were accepted to more than one, that’s great! The power is in your hands once again to decide which is best for you. But first, don’t forget to celebrate!
15. You COMPLETE the last few strings (paperwork, visa, passport, classes, etc.)
You are super excited that you were accepted, but this time around, you don’t let the excitement get the best of you. You continue on with your process because there is still a lot of work to do. Again, don’t freak out, it’s all well worth it and its all manageable. You already went through the whole process of choosing programs, so you are well prepared to handle a little more work.
16. You PACK, TRAVEL, ARRIVE, and have the ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME.
Now the fun part begins! It’s also a little less stressful. Bring as few things as possible so as not to over pack, but also be smart about what you bring as well. Pack the necessities and fewer comfort items. When you arrive, it’ll be scary and very different from what you’re used to, but that’s all a part of life. Don’t forget to have fun, and don’t fret too much especially about things that are out of your control.
17. You RETURN to a foreign world in its own right, thankful for your experience.
Depending on how long your study abroad experience is, you may find that when you return, the world you once knew is now a foreign place. But maybe not. You may have become so engulfed in the culture of your experience, that you could see yourself living there indefinitely. Or maybe not. Whatever the case, there is not doubt that you will be drastically changed by the experience.
Can you relate to any of these stages? Did you go through any stages that aren’t on this list?
This post was written by Kathryn Johnson, a junior majoring in Spanish at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Kathryn’s passion for travel blossomed from her love for foreign language In August, 2015, she plans to volunteer in France or Morocco before traveling to Spain for a semester-long study abroad experience.
Kathryn is currently learning about travel marketing and social media during an internship with VentureTime Travel.
View her LinkedIn profile at to learn more about her accomplishments and future goals.
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