The Pros and Cons of Winter Study Abroad

This winter break, I left behind Netflix and the suburbs of NOVA to study abroad in Nepal for two weeks for a three credit course on storytelling and conservation. I’m a seasoned traveler, though had never been to Asia so was I very excited to see how this experience would compare to previous trips. It’s important to understand the commitments of a program when you decide to study abroad; here is what I learned!

The Pros

1. Low cost per credit hour

Study abroad is often unattainable for financial reasons and the price often deters students who would otherwise love to be abroad. George Mason has scholarship programs for study abroad (check the GEO website). Even without financial aid, a one or two week program can be relatively close to the price of the same course taken on campus, if you account for the invaluable experience that comes with the credits. Winter study abroad programs can also offer more than three credits. Pro tip: travel to countries with a low exchange rate to the dollar and avoid Western Europe if you’re on a tight budget. Doing so will help with food and lodging costs. In my opinion, it’s often more enriching to travel to countries that differ greatly from your own home than those with the same commodities.

2. Manageable time commitment

Leaving for a semester can take months of planning and imply you spend a large part of your year in another country. If you aren’t sure you’re ready to take a whole course load on the opposite side of the world or have responsibilities (like jobs or family) to attend to at home, this option lessens the weight of a decision to go abroad. Even for my own trip to Nepal financial commitments had been made months in advance and necessary items were procured up until the day of my flight. In any case abroad you’ll also need to apply for passports and VISAs.

3. ‘Dip your toe in’ level of immersion

A short term study abroad program is perfect for anyone tentative about leaving the familiar or not sure about a location in specific. Most of my travel and years living abroad were in Europe, with only some experiences further southeast than the lower Mediterranean region. Going to Nepal and overcoming language barriers, lack of convenience and health concerns makes me confident about traveling elsewhere in Asia. With an open mind and expectation of obstacles your first study abroad experience will encourage you to travel again!

4. It’s abroad!

This one is self-explanatory, but it was easy for me to choose between staying at home for four weeks and seeing a whole new country while earning credits for my degree. You can’t replicate a study abroad experience and there’s no time like the present. Additionally, if you have layovers you can extend and enhance your travel. (I spent my twenty-one hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey seeing the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar).

5. Won’t cut into your semester

A winter study abroad, as with those in the summer, won’t impede your ability to take a full course load in the spring and come back ready to get that bread. It’s empowering to know you kept working on your goals before most students even register for class.

The Cons

1. Full daily schedule

With one or two weeks at your destination, there’s not much time to socialize or sleep besides time on the road or meals. You’ll need to be prepared to wake up bright and early and get to sleep late after submitting assignments. It can be exhausting if you don’t regularly have a busy schedule, especially for the first few days if you’re jet lagged.

2. Less time with the locals

Because the study abroad is so short you won’t have almost any time to engage or drink with the locals as compared to if you stay for a whole semester. You’ll mostly be building relationships with your classmates and professor and any guest speakers or guides. Some classes might involve interviewing or engaging heavily with locals; during my time I befriended Nepali students -- we’re now friends on Facebook!

3. Travel & sick days

Travel does a lot to your body, and often the first days are stressful physically and mentally due to jet lag, dehydration and new exposure to pathogens. It’s common to get stomach illness or small colds, of which I experienced both. Any sickness or fatigue will tempt you to disengage with your current situation, and that’s normal. You have to be comfortable with the possibility of being under the weather for a significant portion or your short trip. Also, please get your vaccines and bring prescription and over-the-counter medications!

4. Unchecked tourist boxes

The toughest of all travel experiences: not getting to see everything. It’s less likely for you to miss out on the top tourist attractions if you have weekends throughout a semester to wander, but on a short trip there’s a lot you won’t see. The upside is you have a reason to come back, of course this might not be financial viable so it’s important to appreciate all you can.

Whether you choose a winter, spring, fall or summer program, yes! Study abroad! There is an experience out there for all majors and more than ever these programs are defining parts of the time students spend in college. There’s a big beautiful world to see, make it your oyster!