I am currently less than a month away from hopping on a plane and leaving the States for my four-month long study abroad adventure in London — and let me tell you, the road to get here was anything but simple. From someone who has *almost* completed the pre-study abroad process, here are some tips and tricks to make your preparation as smooth as possible.
- It's never too early to explore your options
While it differs by school, I have noticed that the most common abroad time for UW-Madison students to go abroad is spring semester of their junior year (you don’t miss a single game day and you basically get to surpass winter, what’s not to like?) However, many people, including myself, begin planning the process as early as the first semester of their sophomore year — this is important, because many applications are due the first week of the first semester prior to your program starting! In my case, this meant that my application was due the very first week of my junior year. While this is absolutely not required, it is always good to chat with an advisor early. You can either drop in with a Peer Advisor or make an appointment with a Professional Study Abroad Advisor through the IAP (International Academic Programs) office. My advisor was very helpful, even in the *incredibly* preliminary stages. She helped me narrow down programs that would work with my major, location preferences and graduation time frame. By my second semester, I knew exactly what program I wanted to apply to! However, you still must do your research — one thing that is heavily stressed is that study abroad is a collaborative process on the part of both the student and advisor, but only YOU can decide the program that is right for you.
- Know your priorities
With over 200 study abroad programs, it can be hard to even know where to start! Begin by figuring out the kind of environment you’d like to be in. Do you want to practice your language skills? Would you be more comfortable with no language barrier? Then, onto academics. Does the program offer classes applicable to your major, or other credits that you need to graduate? Finally, logistics. Would you rather do an exchange program at another university, or a program administered by UW? Location, of course, is the most important — where is it you want to be? What kind of climate? What would you like to be in close proximity to? Using these criteria, it was very easy to narrow down my program. While I would love to be bilingual, I unfortunately am not, so I knew I would have a less stressful experience with no language barrier. I also knew I wanted to be in a large city, so I settled on London. There are a few different programs located in London, and I ended up choosing the one administered through UW for a few reasons — my classes would be automatically transferred back with guaranteed course equivalents, there are journalism and communication courses offered for my major, and as a bonus, the program includes a built-in internship, where you fill out a form and are then placed in an area of interest.
- Look over your pre-departure tasks
There is a whole lot more to beginning your study abroad journey than the acceptance letter. Once accepted, review your deadlines and make sure they are all in your calendar. For my program, some of these dates and deadlines included making a deposit (I cannot stress enough to do this early — not knowing how to get a money order and trying to do it the same day that the deposit is due is not the move!), attending a mandatory information session and completing a few different online modules reviewing health and safety. There are also, naturally, a lot of questionnaires and forms, so ensure that you are completing all of those on time.
- Review the packing list
Your program will likely include some type of packing list. Even if it isn’t a full list, you will probably be given some idea of what — and what not — to bring. There is a whole lot of strategy to packing light (especially under 50 pounds!), so it is a good idea to think early about what you will need to bring and what it is okay to leave. You also will want to think about things like medications — you’re going to need more than your regular amount for a four-month stay, so make sure you are setting up appointments as soon as possible if you need to get additional refills.
- Let's do shots!
Depending on where you’re going you will need different vaccines, but there’s a very high chance you’re going to need at least one no matter what. I found UHS’ travel clinic to be very helpful — I was able to set up an appointment for an immunization review, and it didn’t even take 20 minutes! I was told to get a flu shot, along with a few optional but highly recommended other vaccines including Meningitis B and a tetanus booster.
- Fill out your Visa application — EARLY.
Visas differ by program, but if you are going to the UK, you will need to obtain a Tier 4 Student Visa before leaving the U.S. I'm going to warn you ahead of time — this process sucks. There is no easy way to do it, and it’s going to be stressful no matter what. However, you can minimize the stress every day earlier that you fill out the application. Study abroad programs know that this is an intense process, though, so most will provide you with an in-depth guide on how to fill the application out. However, the application is not the only part — once that is done, you must provide biometrics, AKA going to a government center in the major city nearest you and getting fingerprints and a picture taken. For me, this meant getting on a bus and spending almost my whole day in Milwaukee, so travel is something to be taken into consideration. Also keep in mind that you cannot have your Visa application reviewed and approved until you complete your biometrics, so earlier is always better.
While there are many, many steps to studying abroad for a semester, this is just the beginning! I know that all the work I have put into preparation this semester will be more than worth it, and I am ecstatic to see what my European adventure will bring. I’m counting down the days!