Thinking about studying abroad? Trying to decide if it’s for you? Let us walk you through the ins and outs of finding the right program, searching for scholarships, and what to expect while studying in a foreign country.
Flicking through the college prospectus aimlessly for the zillionth time, I was feeling fairly uninspired. I was 17 years old, had no idea what I wanted to do, and was facing a looming deadline to fill in my college applications.
“International commerce with Chinese studies?!” I read to myself, not really taking it seriously at all at that point, “that’s brilliant- can you imagine! I’ll apply for a laugh.”
I cast my eyes over the fine print in the course breakdown section, where it said that your third year of study will be done as a transfer to one of the assigned partner universities in China.
It seemed like a completely mad idea; I had never considered studying abroad before.
At the time, Chinese studies was a brand new course; the first graduating class hadn’t even come through the university yet. Nobody really knew much about it, least of all me.
I could never have imagined that 3 years from that exact moment I’d be halfway round the world, living in a city of 23 million people, and on my way to speaking fluent Mandarin.
Studying abroad ended up being insanely rewarding, both on an academic and personal level.
Along the way, I learned quite a bit about how (and how not) to navigate through a year of foreign study, so with the aim of helping out some future potential students, I’ve put together this practical guide with info on:
- Why you should study abroad
- Who is eligible to study abroad
- What kind of programs are available
- A breakdown of scholarship options (and how to find them)
- What to expect from your course
- How to deal with culture shock and homesickness
- The opportunities you’ll have if you choose to study abroad
Let’s get started:
Why study abroad?
Studying abroad is an invaluable experience no matter who you are or what degree you’re hoping to study. After all, it’s a chance to get out there and explore the world- and often, it’s one of the most affordable ways of doing so as a student.
I had always wanted to travel, but at the age of 17, I didn’t have the money (or means) of doing it. By choosing to study abroad, I was able to snag myself a year in China (plus extra travel outside of term to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) by the time I was 19.
A big improvement from sitting in a lecture hall at home, if you ask me!
Not only that, but studying abroad also helps to better prepare you for your working life when you leave university. You’ll be one of the most marketable graduates in the eyes of future employers and you’ll be ahead of the pack in plenty of other aspects of your life thanks to the valuable skills that you will have picked up living abroad.
The good news is:
Many courses offer study abroad programs and the vast majority of them offer some kind of scholarship, too.
What kind of study abroad \programs are there?
- Pre-university programs: Run by the universities themselves, individual departments sometimes open up offers to prospective students looking to study abroad for a few weeks (this was offered by the Confucius Institute at University College Cork in Ireland, where I took my degree).
- Semester programs: During the academic year, courses with study abroad programs may send their students to a partner university for either one or two semesters.
- Short-term programs (intersession): Also held during the academic year, these programs may only last for a few weeks (typically 4-8) and may occur during the mid-term or winter breaks.
- Summer programs: Aimed mostly at university students (but often open to pre-uni students too), summer programs generally last from 2 weeks to a month.
- Direct enrol: This is when a student works directly with the international enrolments department of a foreign university to gain submission. The benefit here is that you don’t need to rely on finding a suitable course in a home university that has a study abroad program.
Who can study abroad?
Anyone from a high school student to a university student can study abroad.
If you’re hoping to carry out the biggest chunk of your study at home, you’ll need to find a suitable major that allows you to study abroad in part only (there are plenty, from language and arts degrees to business, sports, and education).
Alternatively, you can directly enrol with a foreign university and study abroad for the entirety of your course.
Have you got a tight budget? Don’t be put off!
Many people assume they’ll never be able to afford the fees for a study abroad program. In reality, you’d be surprised the amount of money you might actually be eligible to receive for undertaking a year of study in a foreign country.
Study Abroad Scholarships & Grants
What kind of study abroad scholarships are there?
There are absolutely tons of different kinds of scholarships and means-tested grants available for students looking to study abroad.
The main categories are:
- University funded scholarships
- Government funded scholarships
- Externally funded (agencies & charities)
I received my scholarship from the Confucius Institute at UCC; so even though it came from the uni, it was actually funded by the Chinese government (who- like many other countries- are very keen to bring foreign students over to learn their national language and culture).
Scholarships may be given out based on academic merit, diversity, need-basis, or to fund specialized study. Scholarships may be region-specific (e.g. study in Asia), country-specific (e.g. study in China), subject-specific (e.g. study Chinese), or student-specific (e.g. scholarships for Chinese students).
How to find study abroad scholarships
Scholarship opportunities will be different depending on individual circumstances.
In a nutshell:
The most efficient way to track down scholarships is to seek information directly from your university.
Either by looking in the prospectus or by contacting the funding department (or your own department of study), you’ll be able to get the most relevant information for your exact circumstances.
You can also find information on government websites, consular websites, and websites dedicated to third level funding.
The realities of studying abroad: what to expect
During your period of foreign study, your course content is likely to change quite a lot compared to your usual timetable at home.
What do I mean by that?
Well, be prepared for the fact you’ll most likely be taking on a range of new classes and subjects, and that the subjects you’ve studied for the past few years will be left at home, to be picked up when you return.
In my home uni, I studied a mix of business, language, and cultural modules. In China, I took only language classes. 25 hours per week of pure language lessons was pretty intense- but clearly worth it because we were able to speak quite fluently by the end of the year.
If you’re unsure about what your course might look like, you can always check out which subjects you’ll be studying in your college prospectus or on your university’s website in the course book of modules.
Culture shock & getting settled
I’ll never forget the day our class first arrived in Shanghai.
It was early days for us BComm Chinese crowd; not many groups of international students had been through the ring yet (to say it was poorly organised would have been a fairly gigantic understatement).
We arrived at a 3-ring circus:
Shanghai was huge; the university address we had was wrong; it was blistering hot; nobody spoke English, and as it turned out our 2 years of Mandarin lessons back home didn’t leave us as prepared for solo navigation of China as we had thought it would. Crowds of people pushed against us as we tried to squeeze ourselves and our bags into the metro. After 10 minutes in the country, we were lost.
This was the point that we learned our first valuable lesson: things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to.
Luckily, study abroad programs have gotten a lot more organised since then!
Without doubt, arriving in a new country can be a daunting experience, especially if you’re on your own. The great thing about studying abroad is that you have a readymade support network: your classmates, course organisers, teachers are there to help.
It’s good to remind yourself from the get-go that things won’t always go smoothly, and when you’re in a country whose culture is unfamiliar, you won’t always understand why things are the way they are.
I always try to remember these two golden rules to help me through:
- Be considerate and respectful to others, even if it doesn’t feel like they’re returning the favour.
- When everything feels like it’s going wrong, learn to laugh at it and things will quickly feel a lot better.
Will I get homesick (and what happens if I do)?
Whether you’re a total home bird or a bona fide globetrotter, homesickness happens to most people in some way or another.
Here’s some more good news:
Homesickness is easy to cope with. It’s perfectly okay to feel like you miss home, but remember that you can still do that while enjoying the adventure that you’re living right now, especially if you:
- Get into a good routine
- Relax and try to let go of your inhibitions
- Make some new friends
- Learn to appreciate what’s in front of you
- Remember that you’re not away from home forever
Like anything else that’s truly worthwhile, studying abroad isn’t without its challenges.
For every difficulty you might face, there are even more opportunities to expand, explore, and grow as a person.
For one, you’ll meet new people from all around the world. In my language class alone there were nearly a dozen different nationalities; I ended up making friends with students from Turkey, South Africa, Mexico, and Peru- all of whom were there doing the exact same thing as me.
Studying abroad is about much more than just classes and textbooks:
Most courses offer opportunities to travel around and experience life in a different region. Having the chance to explore a country and a culture that’s totally new to you- whether you do it solo (which is often when you’ll make the most exciting discoveries) or with a group- is a great privilege.
Best of all:
Studying abroad is an opportunity for self growth.
Spending time away from home is a surefire way of learning a lot about yourself and your feelings about your home. Learning the culture and history of another country is worthwhile in itself, but it also offers you a rare chance to see your own culture from another perspective and understand how diverse the world really is.
Studying abroad is a hugely fulfilling experience for students of all ages, nationalities, and academic backgrounds. If you’re still considering whether or not it’s for you, here are some takeaways to help you decide:
- Anyone can study abroad, as long as you find the right course that allows you to do so
- Studying abroad can put you at a huge advantage academically, professionally, and personally
- You’ll have the chance to travel, experience a foreign culture, expand your knowledge, skills, worldview, and friend circle.
- Scholarships are widely available and can help you fund your experience
- Culture shock and homesickness can be intimidating at first, but learning to laugh, be kind, make friends, and enjoy your surroundings will allow you to make the most of your time abroad