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Spartan Wanderer

Ramblings from the road, gear reviews, design trends, and whatever else happens to be on my mind.

How to Travel: Study Abroad

Something I get asked a lot is, "How did you get started?" Or sometimes it's just phrased as a comment. "I wish I could travel like that". I do sometimes take the adventures I've had for granted and forget that not everyone has had the chance to travel like this. The best way to answer the question of "how" is to first say that it's a lot easier than you might think. It is certainly not the unattainable glamorous lifestyle that it's portrayed to be. Well, maybe a little glamorous, until you can't leave your apartment for a week due to crippling food poisoning. The thing is, there are tons of opportunities abroad that will allow you to travel long-term and experience a different culture in a way that just isn't possible on your typical two-week round trip. This series of posts is taken from my new ebook - Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel - and covers six different possibilities to get yourself on a one-way plane to somewhere. I'm thinking I might aim to post two of these each month to keep the inspiration levels somewhat consistent. This week's post is on study abroad - don't worry if that part of your life is far behind you, I promise that there will be something for everyone by the time this series is over!

Ah, the student life. Frequent partying with a few breaks to allow for edification and education in pursuit of a piece of paper that is rapidly becoming worthless. While you’re there, you might as well work the system to get some travel experience under your belt while amplifying the partying you’re accustomed to by a factor of 10 (this mostly applies to Europe). Almost all universities offer those all-inclusive travel packages for spring break or summer, but they’re expensive as hell and only last a couple of weeks. I’m talking about becoming an exchange student.

Most public universities, as well as a few private schools, often have student exchange agreements with partner universities in different countries. This effectively means that, if you qualify, you can pay your normal tuition and study abroad. You don’t have to find someone from that university abroad to take your place, as the name might suggest. There are so many allotments for a given university depending on demand, so once you go to a partner university, you fill one of the open slots for that year while one becomes available at your home university.

Americans don’t like to learn another language, which puts the British Isles, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Belize in very high demand. Literally only one student from my home university (Appalachian State, go Mountaineers) was allowed for each of these countries every year, making it just as competitive as a big scholarship. A mediocre student, I applied for Sweden for which there was almost no demand.

The process

My university worked with a couple of different exchange organizations. The university itself had its own unique exchange partnership with several universities abroad. Next in line was the University of North Carolina Exchange Program, which had more partnerships than my university. Last was the International Student Exchange Program, which works with most American universities. The further away you branch out from your home university’s program, the more expensive it is, but there are also more choices. When using ASU’s own program, your tuition, room and board, etc. will be treated no differently than they would be if you were starting another semester there. You can choose from 25 countries - not bad at all. On the other hand, UNCEP let’s you choose from 52, but may or may not cover room and board. ISEP has a roster of 56 countries, as well as the most options for universities within them, but your tuition will only remain the same. The rest is up to you.

So, money can unfortunately be an issue with this option. I had a rather unique situation as I was studying on a full scholarship and had a free semester to study abroad and take bullshit classes due to being such a good little boy in high school. I chose the UNCEP option, paid the same tuition and received the same room and board allowance I did every semester. You can effectively do the same thing if you already have a student loan. The only thing to account for would be a higher cost of living in some countries, which Sweden definitely had. $8 for a beer? Holy shit! So I guess you could just “not drink” the whole time you’re there.

No matter what you choose, there will be a LOT of paperwork to keep track of. I’m talking letters of recommendation from professors, a study abroad office application form, the actual program application form, getting professors to read the curriculum abroad and signing off on it so you can transfer credits, and many other things that will depend on your school. It can be stressful, but just knock it out as soon as you can and keep it in a safe place. My study abroad advisor was a huge help and made sure I met all of my deadlines. Keep them in a very visible place if you don’t have the same luxury.

In summary, choose an exchange program offered by your university. Choose a country, and ask your advisor how good your chances are of being placed there. Choose a partner university within that country. Make sure you can get credits for your classes abroad if you need them. Complete a shit load of paperwork. Wait. Complete more paperwork. Emails, emails, emails. You’ll most likely need a student visa, but I’ll be devoting a whole section to those tricky bastards later.

The awesome

Study abroad is about as care free of a traveling experience you can get without having a trust fund. If you are at least mildly responsible during your other semesters at home, you can work it out so that you only need to take one or two classes for transferrable credit abroad. The others can just be for fun, like Country X’s language (recommended) or a culture class. These will be very helpful for integration, and probably quite easy to transfer as well if you need to meet a certain quota of credits for your school back at home, even if they do not apply to your major. 

So your responsibilities are: 

1. Make sure you pass the courses you need.

2. Do whatever else the hell you want.

Granted, this isn’t too much different from being in college at home, except…you’re not! Also, it’s illegal to work in most countries on a student visa, so you’re free of that responsibility as well. Make non-American friends, party, see as much of the country as you can, party, dive head first into any opportunities that will provide an authentic cultural experience and party. Then repeat. 

I say ‘party’ a lot. Maybe because I didn’t really ever enjoy parties until I moved abroad. I always found college parties in America to be vapid. Nothing against people who have a good time in that environment, but as someone who is slightly introverted, it just wasn’t for me. Sweden changed my opinion on parties. People were more inclined to have conversations on politics than just mindless dancing and shouting over music, although there was a bit of that, too. From that point on I started enjoying parties, especially if they were hosted by my student union

Definitely join a student union with a good combination of other international students as well as locals. They will organize fun events, usually with some sort of cultural relevance, and you may even find a working role (volunteer) in the organization. Sweden is special, and has unions called student nations. Each of them have their own bar or club, and you can tend bar, work in the kitchen or even help with their marketing team. It was an inside track to the culture and the language, as well as free booze.

Be good

Studying abroad is a special experience that everyone should take advantage of if they can. At that point, it was the most fun I’d had in my life. But please, be good. I try not to be too patronizing when I say this, but students need to hear it more than anyone else that’s reading this. You’re going to party, see some interesting things, and meet some great people. But remember that you are a diplomat. To every member of the local population you meet, you are under scrutiny as a sample of your home country and its people. Please, please don’t act like a jackass. Don’t perpetuate stereotypes.

I’m almost afraid to be around other Americans abroad because of their reputation as rude and unwilling to explore the culture around them. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but the evidence is definitely there. Any time I decided to hang out with an American, we were only with other Americans. If I went to the bars with a Swedish friend, then it was with other international students. You end up with an international group and the Americans. There’s nothing wrong with discussing the similarities and differences of your host country with your countrymen, but try to break through that barrier of comfort and get to know the people who actually live there. It will expand your experience dramatically.

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Uprooting | A Beginner's Guide to Extended Travel
If you found these tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.