Have you ever wondered what it feels like to become the most insufferable person to walk planet Earth? I had seen the memes, read the lore, even experienced it second-hand, but nothing would prepare me to become the very person I swore I’d never become: a study abroad student who would not, pardon my French, shut the **** up about it. (I’ve been to France, by the way).
For half a second I considered writing about my actual study abroad experience before realizing that I had already posted nearly every waking moment I spent away from the ol’ U.S. of A on social media. While I was busy being a digital annoyance and the epitome of everything wrong with Gen Z, I had received quite a few questions about how to study abroad. I had, after all, done it twice, and if my spammed Instagram story told you anything it was that every second was well worth it.
So this isn’t about how studying abroad was the best four months of my life (it was), or how I met some lifelong friends I’ll never forget (I did), but about how you can experience that too.
Choosing a Program
Before jumping in, I want to give a short disclaimer: This is based on my own experiences and will likely vary depending on school or program or a multitude of other factors. I have studied abroad twice, but most of my focus will be on my spring semester exchange to South Korea with a few mentions of my summer abroad in South Africa.
That being said, the two programsI’ve had the opportunity to partake in were different. My semester in South Korea was an exchange program between my university (Old Dominion University) and the host university (Yonsei University). The South Africa program was an “affiliated program” with my university, an experience offered by a third-party organization that offers study abroad experiences, in my case the organization was the School of International Training. There are also faculty-led experiences, which can vary in length from days to months, and typically consist of traveling with a faculty member from your university for a particular class or topic.
When choosing a program there’s a couple questions I asked myself:
Where is the program?
Studying abroad means spending immense amounts of time and money, so I suggest you consider if the country is somewhere you want to spend both. For some, this may simply be a question of ‘do I want to go to another country?’ but for some it can be more. Will your identity (i.e. as a woman, a member of the LGBTQ+, a vegan, etc) affect your experience? You should research the culture, language and any additional tourist information about your country of choice.
Does this align with my study abroad goals and expectations?
Think about what you want to experience and what exactly you want to get out of it and compose your thoughts into a list. Compare program details to your list, and try talking to alumni about that program if possible to learn about the reality and not what is advertised. Specific details may also change your experience. What classes are you taking? Where are you staying and with whom? Will you have more or less independence? These questions will help you build your expectations. Furthermore, transferring credit is the goal for many study abroad programs. Talk with your department and study abroad advisors to explore your options.
How much does it cost?
This will be one of the most important questions you can ask. Nothing hurts more than finding the perfect program and then realizing you may not be able to afford it. This is where budgeting and scholarships come in. Many universities and study abroad organizations offer scholarships and financial aid, another conversation for your advisors. You should also take the initiative to search for other third-party scholarships. A quick google search will return over a million results of scholarships you may potentially be eligible for. Any cost paid out of pocket should be estimated and budgeted before choosing the program. Personally, I used a combination of scholarships, financial aid from my parents, and money I saved working part-time to fund my experience.
The pre-departure process and budget varies wildly depending on which program you choose. So these next two sections are specific to my experience. The pre-departure process, give or take, for applying to the Yonsei University exchange program at my school consisted of the following:
- Attend an information session
- Talk to a study abroad advisor
- Apply to the desired exchange program
- Wait for an acceptance
- Following acceptance, immediately apply for student visa
- Start the tasks in the study abroad portal for my university
*This included insurance, identification documents, flight information, training and more.*
- Start application for host university in their portal.
- Get accepted by the host university.
- Attend university’s pre-departure study abroad orientation
- Attend and complete visa appointment (or complete online application)
- Apply for student-housing
- Pay tuition fees
- Book flights
- Depart for destination
Because studying abroad can range from a couple days to many months, there is no generally applicable cost. Many people, however, rule out the possibility of studying abroad because they believe it’ll be more expensive than what they’re used to paying, but that’s not always the case.
The thing that surprises people the most about my semester in South Korea is that it was the same price as staying on campus for a semester. Crazy, right? South Korea’s relatively low cost of living was certainly a factor, but other study abroad programs may be more expensive. Here’s a cost breakdown of my spring 2023 semester abroad for your convenience:
International students dorm: $1,500
Round trip flight from Norfolk, Va. to Incheon Airport, South Korea: $2,000
Mandatory health insurance for study abroad: $300
Visa and passport fees: $150
This program’s recommended spending amount for four months: $4,000
For comparison, the cost for staying on campus at my university in spring 2022 including room and board, tuition for 18 credits, an (unnecessarily expensive) mandatory meal plan, and other fees was approximately $13,000. Not included in either totals are the scholarships and financial aid that also lessened the financial burden of my studty abroad plan.
I say this all to say, don’t be quick to dismiss the idea of studying abroad due to financial concerns. It’s an investment not just in your education, but also your personal growth and global perspective.
While my personal experience may have turned me into the enthusiastic storyteller I once vowed not to be, it was undeniably worth every moment. As I reflect on my adventures in South Korea and South Africa, I can only encourage you to take the same leap. I promise you won’t regret it.