Student and Parent Guide: a Relevant Study Abroad Program

© Sandi M. Smith, Ed.D., Director of Institutional Relations, Global Learning Semesters
Despite the poor perceptions of the U.S. by other countries in the last decade, U.S. college students have continued to see the value in participating in an academic international experience while in college. It is not merely the realization that the competitive job market awards those with relevant and meaningful international experience, I believe this generation of “millennial” students are reaching out to bridge the misunderstandings between Americans and the increasingly globalized world.
Thus, it appears to be more important to this decade’s college students to choose a relevant and meaningful international experience that will not only enhance their resume’ and job prospects, but will also give the student a broad perspective of the world and opportunity to build relationships with citizens of the world.
It is important that students choose an appropriate program to get the most out of an international experience. Because there are a variety of program types, structures, locations, and requirements… it is worth the time and effort it takes to find a program that meets your individual academic and personal needs.
The “Big 3” reasons for choosing a study abroad program that is a good fit:
1. Academic: The program should be first and foremost relevant to the student’s academic and career goals. It is often that students choose a study abroad program according to a destination that they want to see. Ah, the countless times I have heard… “I have dreamed of seeing Paris since I was a little girl. I have to study abroad in Paris.” And yet, this student did not take any French language classes in either High School or College before requesting a semester abroad in Paris. Just because a students wants to see or live in a particular location, does not establish a compelling academic justification for study abroad. Study abroad should be chosen to enhance academic goals. As an example… It is not often that a business major can show a compelling reason to study abroad in Florence, Italy. Although there could be some relevance in studying the business of the art industry and art tourism, however, most of the study abroad programs in Florence are really only relevant for art, history, and humanities majors. A general business course taught in English by an Italian art institute is not a compelling reason for a business major to study abroad in Florence. Thus, if a student “just wants to experience Florence, Italy”, he/she should go there on vacation, but should not choose this as a destination to spend a summer or semester studying abroad. There are dozens of much more relevant destinations and programs for a business major.
2. Financial: A relevant international academic experience is a valuable investment in a student’s education and career. However, the same care and attention that goes into choosing a college, should go into choosing a relevant international experience. Study Abroad should not be approached as “a semester away from college” or “a chance to see the world”. There are less expensive ways to travel and take time off from college than paying for a semester of study abroad. Besides… a student not really interested in making a serious academic effort while on study abroad is a safety and academic hazard to other students on the program. Any study abroad program should be pre-approved by the student’s academic advisor for transfer of credit into the student’s graduation requirements.
3. Student Characteristics: As a third consideration in choosing a study abroad program (and it should be in the above order of priorities), really understanding the student characteristics is crucial in finding the most relevant and meaningful program. There is NO one perfect study abroad program. There are different programs designed for different student experiences and different student outcomes. Thus, it is worth the time and effort put into figuring out individual student characteristics before hastily choosing a particular study abroad program.
Programs have distinctive characteristics, like students, and thus it is important to find the right “match” between the student and the program. Your friend, or sister, or teacher may have participated in a program that was “absolutely great” for them, but may not be a good fit for you. Thus, a glowing recommendation from someone who went on a program is not necessarily the most appropriate approach to choosing a program.
About the Author
With a doctorate in Higher Education Administration, from Florida State University, Dr. Sandi specializes in the internationalization of higher education and provides consulting services to colleges and universities exploring ways to initiate, enhance and/or maximize study abroad.
Director of Institutional Relations, Global Learning Semesters

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