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Oh, the places you'll go…The real value of an international education

STUDENT SURVIVAL GUIDE '09: Studying abroad 

Oh, the places you'll go…The real value of an international education

BY KATHY LALUK

It was time. I had spent nearly four months studying abroad in London, but the day had finally come to return home. My bags were packed, weighed and measured to airline standards (after a bit of difficulty with the conversion from kilos to pounds). My flat had been cleaned -- twice -- and passed our landlord's inspection. The taxi to Heathrow had been called and paid for. My plane ticket and passport were safely tucked away in my purse and, with one last heavyhearted sigh, I finally set off to return to the United States.

            After 118 days overseas (96 in London, 22 elsewhere in Europe), 4386 photos (seriously), 11 different tube (subway) lines, countless trips to the theater, museums, pubs, and landmarks, and too many friends and memories to count, coming home was a difficult experience. Not just because of everything I'd be leaving behind, but also because of the expenses I was facing. I had been checking the exchange rate since October and had some rough cost estimates in mind. I thought I was ready for the financial burden when I set off on my semester abroad. Turns out I was wrong.

            Flash-forward half a year. Even though my bank account is still on the rebound and I spent my last real summer vacation working 40-plus hours a week to make up the financial ground, I wouldn't trade my semester abroad for anything.

            International education has become a more popular phenomenon over the past few decades -- the Institute of International Education reports that in the 2005-06 school year, 223,534 students took classes abroad, compared with only 89,242 a decade earlier.But the declining economy has many college study abroad offices worried. In a recent survey conducted by IIE, college officials listed increased operational costs and budget and staffing cuts among the challenges they expect to endure in the near future. Yet nearly all of the same officials agreed spending a semester abroad is one of the most valuable things students can get out of higher education, and it's worth fronting the often panic-inducing bill to do it. (For money-saving strategies, check the sidebar on page XX.)

Despite the challenges, students continue to show interest in study abroad programs. Jackie Levine, assistant dean and director of study abroad at University of Rochester, says that UR's study abroad numbers are still on the rise -- they're up 5 percent for the fall term from the spring '09 semester. Levine says her goal was to see a 10 percent increase, but she's glad to see students considering international programs at all.

            "I've seen a lot of students sacrifice other luxuries -- giving up their cars or getting a job, for example -- just to keep study abroad on the table," she says. "It's incredibly encouraging for me."

            Nils Klinkenberg, a 2006 UR graduate, decided to study in France in the spring of his junior year -- a popular time for students to study abroad -- and says he doesn't regret the decision.

            "I suppose you could put a monetary value on [studying abroad], but it'd be meaningless," he says. "Experiential learning is powerful. You learn so much more by studying abroad than you ever could from a textbook."

            Mark Zaid, UR '89, added another dimension to his political science degree by spending a semester working for a member of British Parliament in London. Now a successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., Zaid said there's no doubt that his experience helped boost his career, and continues to influence his day-to-day life.

            "Let's put it this way: my study abroad experience is still on my résumé 20 years later," he says.

            Levine says Zaid isn't the only student to benefit from study abroad post-graduation. She says those who spend a semester abroad have a better chance at earning Fulbright Fellowships, and at getting hired because of their time abroad.

            In an increasingly globalized society, gaining an international perspective can give students a competitive edge in the job market. Going abroad should not be seen as an add-on, Levine says, but as a must: "The question shouldn't be 'Can I afford to study abroad?' The question is 'Can you afford not to?'"

Klinkenberg's scholarships carried over into his study abroad experience, which made it much easier for him to afford -- and affording the trip is a challenge for many students. The IIE estimates the average semester abroad will cost a student anywhere from $8,500 to $35,000.

            "Thinking about the study abroad in the financial sense is certainly important and certainly something I experienced," he says. "But I don't think it should ever stop a student from studying in another culture."

            And with about 50 programs in 30 different countries, UR offers plenty of opportunity to travel. UR offers traditional exchange programs and summer sessions abroad, in addition to more unique programs, like the Internships in Europe program and the Semester in Tuscany program (students exclusively study Italian history, culture, and language).

            RIT offers affiliated programs in more than 20 countries, including a Sea Semester program that allows students to study in multiple places, including Tahiti, the Marquesas, Lunenburg, and Bequia. Students can also spend a semester in Paris or Croatia specializing in film and photography.

            At Nazareth College, students can even major in international studies, minor in international business, or take part in the college's Inter-Cultural Teacher Education programs in places like Wales, Ireland, or the Navajo Nation. MCC students can study Celtic mythology in the United Kingdom and Ireland, or Homer's epics on-location in Greece. The college also has affiliated study abroad programs through SUNY Brockport and SUNY Geneseo, as well as SyracuseUniversity. For specifics on all the programs your college has to offer, visit your school's website or stop by their study abroad office.

            For this writer, studying abroad was one of the best decisions I ever made. I'll be paying back the expenses from the trip for years to come (about $22,000 by the time you add up tuition, living expenses, travel and everything else),but I don't care. The cost of the trip is something that will linger in the back of my mind for a while, but the trip itself, the friends I made, and the experiences I had will stand out in the forefront of my memory for the rest of my life. Ask anyone who's studied abroad and I'm sure they'll feel the same way. If you have studied abroad, let us know; share your experiences by commenting on this article at rochestercitynewspaper.com.

How to afford a study abroad trip

Take a trip to your school's study abroad office. Figure out which programs fit your wants and your needs, financially and academically. Remember, the people in these offices are there to help you, and they really know their stuff.

Seek out alternative study abroad programs. Many colleges allow students to transfer credits from affiliated programs, and some offer exchange programs, which tend to be cheaper because colleges aren't sacrificing a tuition-paying student for the semester. Do some independent research and see if you can't reduce overall costs by considering a different overseas option.

Visit the financial aid office. Many students who already qualify for aid on their home campus can transfer it to make a semester abroad more affordable.

Look for scholarships and grants. This is a good tip even if you're not planning to study abroad. You might not know it, but there are scholarships for everything. Some are worth more than others -- anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars -- but every little bit helps. A good start is to visit fastweb.com, a subsidiary of monster.com. Once you've filled out a lengthy survey, fastweb will generate a list of scholarships, grants, and contests just for you. For scholarships specific to international education, and plenty of other useful resources, try studyabroad.com.

Don't pay for credits you don't need. Colleges offer all sorts of cool courses for students who go abroad, but why not knock off some of those graduation requirements while you're overseas? Make sure to take a fun elective or two (hey, you've gotta have at least some fun) but try to earn credits toward your degree too so you don't add to the financial burden down the road.

Set up a "study abroad" bank account. If you know you want to study abroad, set up a separate bank account and start saving now. Set aside a $10 a week and put it into the account. You could even ask family members and friends to donate to your study abroad fund in lieu of birthday or Christmas gifts.

Some additional tips:

Once you've decided to go abroad, keep an eye on the exchange rate and ask your study abroad office for a cost estimate (tuition, room, board, etc). It might not even be a bad idea to have a rough monthly budget in mind for your time outside the country.

Keeping track of your spending is crucial when you're abroad. Make sure you talk to your bank and credit card company before you leave, and let them know where you'll be going, when, and for how long. Nothing is more stressful than being in a foreign country and not being able to withdraw money from an ATM or use your credit card.

Take advantage of student discounts. Depending on where you go and what kind of program you're enrolled in, you can get special international student cards that will save you money every time you go to a museum, buy theater tickets, or ride the train. For more information on international student discount cards, check out isecard.com, or talk to your study abroad director.

Travel. I can't stress this one enough. Staying in your host country can be great -- you definitely don't want to miss out on anything there -- but you can go elsewhere too. Spend a weekend in another country and see what it has to offer. Sites like lastminute.com and hostelworld.com can help you find cheap flights, train tickets, hostels, and hotels. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it was a lot cheaper for me to fly to anywhere in Europe from London than it ever would be from Rochester. It may be an additional financial burden in the short run, but you might never get the opportunity to travel like this again.

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