Is it really worth it to study abroad? Am I better off taking a gap year?
Having trouble deciding between a formal study abroad program and time spent traveling and learning on your own? You’re not the only one.
I get it. I spent pretty much all of high school daydreaming about far away places and getting out of the Midwest. I promised myself I’d go to school somewhere on the east coast and study abroad a semester or two.
Unfortunately, the astronomical tuition at my first-choice university kept me from moving to New York, but I more than made up for it by studying abroad every chance I got for a grand total of 4 summer programs (in Mexico, Spain, Italy, and India respectively) and 2 academic years in Barcelona, Spain.
But my international experience as a student didn’t come cheap. While I still think it was probably worth it to study abroad for my first international stint, and I’m still really glad that I took the plunge and started traveling, looking back, I know I could’ve done more on my own and racked up substantial savings – I know this because I arranged one of my summers, and one of my academic years on my own (or as my mom liked to call it, at my own peril), in both cases for a fraction of what I would’ve spent if I’d signed up for a specific study abroad program through my university.
So what’s right for you? Here are some pros and cons to consider.
Pros and Cons of a Formal Study Abroad Program
Believe it or not, my number one reason for studying abroad through my school wasn’t that it made it easy to fund, no savings required with my student financial aid (although that was a major bonus). For me it was about having expert advice. No one in my family was especially well-traveled. I wanted and needed help and I was willing to pay for it (albeit in seemingly imaginary “fun” money from scholarships and student loans).
Having advisors and adminstrators to lean on made me and my parents much more comfortable with the newness of the situation and the pile of paperwork that had to be done to go. Studying abroad through my university meant having a built-in instant support team at my home school before I went and at destination. So when I had Delhi belly in India, and Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico, there were program directors to help me figure out where to see a doctor, get medicine and get well. Another pro? I was guaranteed course credit (unless I failed or dropped out).
While I’ll admit it wasn’t the positive for me that it was for my more sociable/extroverted classmates, going with a program from your school means you’ll have a ready-made group of peers who’re in the same boat as you, which comes in handy when you’re homesick or lonely. Yeah, some of them will get on your nerves – but that’s true everywhere.
Looking back, for me at least, the biggest con when it comes to an organized study abroad program is the sheer expense-programs start at $5,000 for 6 weeks, $8,000 for a semester, and $15,000 for an academic year – and that’s without flights, folks. At the time, I didn’t even really blink, because the money didn’t come out of my pockets directly (three cheers for Student Financial Aid) but now, 10 years after graduation, still gradually hacking away at my college debt, I’m not going to lie – I go through bouts of feeling guilty and foolish for not doing travel and study on my own terms sooner.
Another negative is the lack of flexibility- studying abroad means following a set itinerary, showing up for classes and activities at specified times and falling in line with guidelines and rules set by your school – it doesn’t matter that you’re a legal adult–there’ll be no wandering off the tour and disappearing – trust me, I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty when you show up a few hours later. One of the the other reasons this lack of flexibility is frustrating to many students is that most programs focus on only one destination which means you’re required to be in one place most of the time, and seeing anywhere else is limited to whirlwind trips on weekends and bank holidays. Of course, since I’ve graduated, schools have come up with multi-destination programs (and even degrees) and one school, Concordia University Irvine, even has an around the world semester that travels to 10 countries.
Struggling with immersion
Finally one of the biggest bummers about going with a program for me was how hard it was to get immersed in local language and culture. When I lived in student housing in Madrid, it felt like 80% of my time or more was spent with other American students. If you’re sharing a student apartment with other people from your program, and attending classes and going out with them, chances are you’re not spending a lot of time speaking the language or mixing with the locals. I know I wasn’t. In my University’s summer study-abroad program in Mexico, a homestay offset this effect somewhat, but not as much as you might think.
The Pros and Cons of a Gap Year or Independent Study and Travel
The best part of a gap year, or any length of time spent studying and traveling on your own is being in control. You decide where to go and when, and what the rules are (although if you ignore local law and custom, you’re in for some unpleasant surprises). The summer I spent volunteering with a local charity and doing research in Italy–I stayed in each destination as long or as little as I liked. I did my work for my project on my own schedule. I perfected my pidgin of Italian-Spanish communicating with the locals. It was a great practice run for my independent study year in Barcelona, Spain. After over-spending on a program I hadn’t much enjoyed through a partner university in Barcelona the year before, I arranged to study directly though a local art school and did all of the paperwork on my own.
Travel on a budget
Another major pro of going it alone? It costs way less than studying abroad. RTW itineraries start at under $2,000, shared apartments and hostels cost way less than university approved student housing, and university coursework at many international universities and professional schools costs far less than at home; compare the $1,800 I spent for a year of private art school to roughly $10,000 for my tuition at the University of Missouri. Of course, while I was able to use student financial aid towards my independent study in Italy (after meeting with a bunch of advisors and doing extra paperwork), your school may not allow it.
YOU are the support system
For me the worst part of studying and traveling on my own was not having a support system in place when bad things happened. When the 60-something hotel owner in Venice (who had easy access to room keys) wanted to take me out for drinks – even after I told him I had a boyfriend, it would’ve been nice to have someone looking out for me – instead I pushed my bags and a chair against the door. When passport control in Milan didn’t believe I was the person in my passport picture (I’d gone from brunette to platinum and had color contacts) it might’ve been easier to have a program director to back me up. When I finally got homesick my second year in Spain, it would’ve been better to have at least one American friend. Wall-to-wall Spanish and Catalan was great for language learning – not so great for heart-to-hearts.
The paperwork for my gap year in Spain was a little more of a pain, but the major difference was having the study abroad people to check over your documentation to make sure everything is correct. Even with my program, I had to go to my visa application appointment in person in a city hours from my hometown, by myself.
Beyond the pros and cons I’ve gleaned from my own experience, knowing what’s right for you really depends on your priorities, your budget, and how you plan to pay for it all. Do you need credit towards your degree? Would you rather travel in a group or go solo? What can you afford?
Resources for Students
Go Overseas has participant reviews of pretty much every study abroad and gap year program out there. They also have this handy guide on how much it costs to study abroad.
At Travel Access Project students have access to free (open-source) country-by-country resources. You can use to plan an independent study project, or TAP will help you find the best way to learn on your trip, and potentially get credit from your school for it.
BootsnAll Travel has a free 30-day e-course on how students can plan a gap year(including how to break the news to your parents). Sign up here.