How to Study Abroad Meaningfully
New programs, financial arrangements, and university policies have ensured that students from almost any area of study can study abroad while adding to the value of their degree. However, there has been some debate about whether all of these experiences can be considered “meaningful.” While many universities tout impressive overseas study statistics, the numbers may not reflect the quality or depth of the program. Often, no distinction is made between those who go abroad for a semester or academic year and those who embark on shorter programs, such as two-week classes with faculty from their home university. While these shorter trips may still be informative and enriching, they don’t offer the same opportunities for deep engagement with people and places and extended exploration.
Beloit’s Office of International Education (known as OIE) encourages students who are going abroad to engage meaningfully in the experience—before, during, and after. Students going through the application process develop their own plan for study abroad, including their learning goals, both personal and academic. Additionally, students returning from their time abroad complete a follow-up evaluation that encourages them to take meaning from their experiences.
OIE Director Elizabeth Brewer advises students to “be comfortable being uncomfortable … Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know.” Brewer says that finding meaning in a study abroad experience requires a great deal of introspection as well as active engagement.
“The meaningfulness also comes out of the application and advising process,” says OIE Associate Director Josh Moore. In addition to reflecting on learning goals, returning students are given opportunities back on Beloit’s campus to make the conversation about study abroad real, including its challenges. This can be done through International Symposium presentations (a concept which Beloit pioneered), participating in a digital storytelling class, or volunteering as study abroad program ambassadors, positions that involve working with the OIE to critically evaluate the study abroad experience and speak about it to other students.
Regardless of what their purposes are for going abroad—and what they do while they are there —Brewer and Moore emphasize that students should always be looking for new ways to connect. “Finding opportunities to engage is one of their number one jobs as a study abroad student,” Brewer says. “Students in the same place will take different strategies, just the way they take advantage of being at Beloit differently.”
For Max Brumberg-Kraus’16, making the most of his time meant getting involved with the campus culture as well as the larger community of Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied in the spring of 2015. In addition to seeing “a ridiculous amount of theater”—mostly student productions—he was actively involved in the on-campus LGBTQ society, visited Scottish parliament, and attended numerous lectures on contemporary LGBTQ issues in Europe.
Brumberg-Kraus also found that his time abroad provided new meaning to his academic work. “Celtic studies tend to be somewhat interdisciplinary, so I was able to bring some of my experience at Beloit from my critical identity studies and literature classes into this work,” he recalls. “I was forced to take my studies at Beloit and re-contextualize them in a new literary and historical environment, which produced some fascinating challenges.”
For Emma Keese’16, the study abroad process involved both quantity and quality. Her adventures began in the summer of 2014, when she embarked on a tour of Europe to conduct a comparative evaluation of Bike Share programs and bike infrastructure in cities, including Copen-
hagen, Vienna, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, and London. For the fall semester, she returned to Copenhagen to study with the Sustainable Development in Northern Europe Program, which allowed her to expand on her summer work.
Keese opted out of joining “the hundred-legged beast,” as American students traveling abroad are often called because of their tendency to group together. Instead, she rented a room from a Danish couple to be closer to classes while also staying absorbed in the local culture. She navigated the study abroad process by continually reminding herself to pursue unique opportunities and challenges, and to be aware of and embrace the sense of discomfort, such as when she and a friend found themselves stranded in a foreign city while waiting for an early morning train.
“After I spent a night on a park bench, it just wasn’t going to get worse than that,” she explains.
Brumberg-Kraus had similar advice: “Studying abroad ‘meaningfully’ means making sure that my academics and my geographical context are tied together. It means thinking critically about my own place in this society as an outsider, as a tourist, as a student. It means finding out how to connect to people from all over the world, and it means being humble enough to learn, to make mistakes, and to listen much more than talk.”
In spring 2015, Kiernyn Orne-Adams’16 studied in Wollongong, Australia, where she enjoyed the beautiful scenery and marvelous accents.
5 Tips for Studying Abroad
- De-center in order to re-center. Studying abroad offers a unique opportunity to get to know yourself, Office of International Education Director Elizabeth Brewer explains. The best way to do that is by welcoming the ambiguities of your experience.
- Embrace the local culture. Whether it is by buying street food, befriending cab drivers, or staying with a host family, take the time to explore the area’s nuances.
- Make the experience yours. There is no one way to study abroad meaningfully. Instead, students should focus on their interests and goals and act accordingly.
- Try something new every day. It might be learning more of the local language or figuring out the public transportation system, but taking little steps each day will help make the overall adjustment process easier.
- Reflect. Brewer suggests that students take time to tell stories in whatever form they’re comfortable with—such as blogs and photographs—in order to practice observing and being present in the moment.