Around this time last year, I started my application to study abroad in Ireland. To put it frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. Now that I’m back and my liver is starting to recover, I decided to sit down with GW’s Office of Study Abroad and a team of other GW students to compile the ultimate guide to studying abroad–all the things I wish I had known before I decided to cross the pond.
The Application Process
Don’t be me. My biggest mistake was not putting in enough research before choosing a program. I had to scrap my application and start over after more than a month, when I finally realized I didn’t qualify for the program based on my age.
American students tend to have it easier than our European neighbors. Daniel Atherton, a junior politics major from The Royal Holloway University of London, only knew that he would definitely be coming to GW one month before he arrived on campus. “It was ridiculous, really,” Atherton says of his application process. “Try and start as soon as possible. It’s basically a monotonous process [with] endless amounts of requirements.”
Adam Lurie, a junior majoring in psychology, just returned from a fall semester at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and ran into similar troubles. “My flight over there was through Ireland so I had some issues getting a visa,” he says. While studying in Scotland, “you can get a visa if you fly in from anywhere other than Ireland.” So Lurie made the best of the situation and got an extra adventure in the bargain. “I flew to Amsterdam with a friend,” he says, “And then went back into the UK.”
Some countries, like Ireland, don’t require you to apply for a visa if you’re only going for one semester. (Take that, Daniel!) But don’t freak out and choose a program based on visa requirements — applying for a visa is manageable and more than worth it. Getting around the red tape can be tough, but returning students and the Office for Study Abroad are available to make the process much, much easier.
Your Personal Squad of Cheerleaders
The folks in the Office for Study Abroad are some of the nicest, easiest to work with professionals that I’ve met at GW, and I only went to one meeting with an advisor. (How many times can I say it? Don’t be me.)
Taylor C. Woodman, the Senior Study Abroad Advisor at the OSA, feels like office hours are wildly underutilized. “Many students feel like they need to make an appointment,” he says, “But…their questions can be handled during office hours.” The OSA’s office hours are some of the best on campus, offered Monday and Tuesday, 1-3 p.m. and Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to noon.
Through campus visits from international partners, peer advice sessions with returning alumni, and 9 to 5 express advising for the quick questions, the OSA exists to make students’ lives easier. Woodman says that he’d “love for students to…help [the OSA] brainstorm ways to encourage more students to go abroad.”
Besides the OSA, there are organizations like the Focus On Fall Abroad Community that exist solely to assist students interested in studying abroad. FOFAC is designed to entice students to study abroad in the fall, and they offer priceless advantages like guaranteed housing in swanky E Street, a few highly competitive scholarships, and the prize of all prizes: drool-worthy advanced registration that makes you feel like an absolute superstar.
It may be schadenfreude, but I have to say there’s something sadistically wonderful about watching your friends panic while your perfect four-day schedule is set in stone a full week before they’re allowed to register. (#Sorrynotsorry.)
Saving up for a semester in another country can feel hellishly daunting. I know I went a little overboard, trying to balance a 16-hour credit load and a 25-hour work week at the same time. Don’t be me. If you have a job, great, but don’t become obsessed with money and sacrifice your social life. Don’t. Be. Me.
For students struggling to make it work, the OSA, FOFAC, and partner institutions all offer forms of financial aid and scholarship opportunities. Woodman says of the OSA, “We can talk about scholarships and budgets to make this experience affordable!”
The fact of the matter is that if you really want to go, you can make it happen. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Yes, plane tickets can cost upwards of $2,000, depending on where you go, but websites like studentuniverse.com and kayak.com can help you find deals on airfare, hotels, and tours. My student ID was my best friend while I was abroad. The most random places offer student discounts, like the Heineken Factory in Amsterdam and random hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Poland.
Lurie puts it simply: “Save money and spend it wisely.”
Make It Count
Studying abroad is a huge commitment, a terrifying challenge, and the most wonderful four- to eight-month party you will ever experience. It’s not all fun and games — you do have to get at least a C average for your classes to count for credit when you get back. It’s easier if you can get your classes confirmed before you leave, but many programs, like mine, don’t offer registration until you arrive on your new campus. In that case, you have to transfer your credits when you get back. “Not 100% sure how to do that,” Lurie admits. “I should probably look into that soon.”
Don’t forget the “abroad” part of studying abroad. Get out there. Don’t restrict yourself to your home country, but don’t spend every weekend outside of it, either.
“Set daily goals for cultural immersion,” Woodman says. “Pop the American bubble and get to know your local community.”
But most importantly — have a freaking blast. Take dorky pictures. Try a food you can’t pronounce. Make a friend who doesn’t speak your language. You’re on the adventure of a lifetime and you will take the world by storm, by thunder!
“Going abroad…makes you realize that university really isn’t just for learning in classes,” Atherton says. “Just enjoy yourself and let what’s going to happen, happen.”