Monday, June 24

The Quad: With small changes, study abroad programs could be more feasible

(Harish Balasubramani/Illustrations director)

(Harish Balasubramani/Illustrations director)

Studying abroad is often seen as an educational excuse to live in another country. However, beyond the novel appeal of living abroad, there is also compelling evidence that studying abroad can actually help develop useful academic, professional and even personal skills.

For many students, however, there are obstacles that stand in the way of studying abroad. Financial constraints and graduation planning seem to pose the biggest problems, although this could be remedied by a few simple organizational changes. Making these changes could be in favor of many students, since studying abroad has been shown to have many merits.

A study from the American Psychological Association found that while abroad, people can, and often do, show an increase in openness and agreeableness, and a decrease in neuroticism. The study indicates that this is largely due to the development of new international relationships that support changes and flexibility – after all, if you’re being forced to meet new people and try new things, you learn to go with the flow.

These changes can translate into other benefits, from academic to career-related skills. For example, many students that study abroad in a country that primarily uses a language other than English at least partially spoken language, if they make an effort to branch out from other English-speaking students. Aside from being a resume booster, learning another language can also help improve brain function and slow brain aging.

Students must adapt to different university structures and ways of learning. This requires students to learn to adjust quickly, given the speed at which classes progress. Students may develop a greater tendency to ask for help – not just in schools, but also in social contexts, where they may not know what certain phrases mean, or what is considered polite. The valuable ability to ask for help politely and avoid miscommunications is one that is best learned through practice.

[Related: Laurel Scott writes about Olivia Draper’s experience in Thailand]

Over the course of a study abroad program, students may experience miscommunications with other cultures they are not familiar with. However, finding ways to achieve positive interactions and avoiding misunderstandings is an important skill for careers that require bridging cultural and language barriers. Many careers require some form of interaction with people from different ethnic, national and cultural backgrounds.

However, not all students are able to take advantage of the benefits of studying abroad, largely because of the way information about studying abroad is provided. According to Myla Edmond, UC Education Abroad Program’s marketing and communications director, only around 5,000 students from the UC system participated in UCEAP last year, totaling about 2% of the total UC student body.

In my experience, many students cite finances as a reason why they don’t study abroad. However, universities around the world offer study abroad programs at different – and sometimes reasonable – price points. Within UCEAP, the estimate for an in-state student to study abroad in New Zealand for a semester is about $14,500, including travel and accommodation. That’s about $2,000 more than the estimate for a quarter at UCLA. About 70% of UCEAP participants receive some type of financial aid, which can be supplemented by UCEAP’s additional scholarships that amount to $1.5 million, said Edmond.

Concerns about not being able to graduate “on time” also plague potential study abroad students, which combines with concerns over paying more for school. For certain majors, studying abroad means falling behind due to the way that courses transfer back (or don’t), or what classes are offered abroad.

While these concerns are not unfounded, they are not insurmountable either. The UC financial aid system adjusts aid accordingly, and outside scholarships are available as well. Degree programs can be arranged so that students don’t fall behind. Most fall semester programs can stand in for the fall quarter or semester in the UC system, although that might mean a shorter summer or winter break. Universities that participate in study abroad programs are known to offer courses in engineering and the sciences, so even science, technology, engineering and mathematics students can study abroad without falling behind.

What ought to change, however, is the way that the UC system approaches study abroad programs. As it stands, students must seek out most information about study abroad on their own, or from a number of different sources. Tighter links between academic counselors and UCEAP counselors could help ease the scheduling required to help students stay on track for graduation. Information about funding study abroad early on, perhaps at orientations, could prevent students from immediately rejecting the possibility of studying abroad on the basis of finances. With these changes, more students would get a chance to study abroad and experience all the benefits of doing so.

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