A World of Opportunity ~ 10 Steps to Studying Abroad

If you or a student you know is considering or even curious about studying abroad, here is an overview of steps to take and issues to plan for to make an international experience a reality and off to a great start! As stated in my previous blog post, “Saddle Up Your Horses,” I am about to embark on my own adventure as an exchange student in Japan soon.

There is no substitute for real world experience when it comes to offering value in a global community and a job market that increasingly relies on international relations and skills. Not only does it benefit students and salary-men in present or prospective careers, it is also a life-changing experience that fosters immense personal growth. It is not possible to fully understand or appreciate how international relationships, systems and exchanges work until you participate in such interactions and assimilate different cultures in their native environments, absorbing new ways of thinking, communicating and living from the source.

Please join me, as this is only the start of a series of blog posts highlighting important and wonderful aspects of living and studying in a foreign country! Specifically, my experience will be with Japan, however the information gathered and shared can be applied to aid in any study abroad opportunity. As a beginning, I will summarize 10 steps in the application and preparation process as I have experienced it so far in hopes that it will help prepare others in their decision to study abroad.

This post is a little long, but informative. Please note that all of these steps are important, but not necessarily in the exact order that they will always occur.

1. Visit Your Local Study Abroad Office
If you attend a university, there is likely an office somewhere on campus that is dedicated to study abroad opportunities. At the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I am striving for my bachelor’s degree in Japanese studies, the study abroad office is located at the Center for Community (C4C) on the third floor. This is the first stop in making any decision or application to a study abroad program. You will likely have to take an interest survey and watch a video introduction to instruct you on the basics of studying abroad. At CU, this introduction is called, “Study Abroad 101,” and it is a short video that must be watched before you can make an appointment to speak with a study abroad adviser. When you want to make an appointment to speak with an adviser, think about what kind of study abroad experience interests you beforehand. Where do you want to go? Why? What do you hope to get out of it? How long would you like to be there? It is helpful to have an idea of these basics so that the adviser can connect you with the best program to meet your needs and desires. If you’re not sure, that is also fine, the adviser can help you narrow down your interests and options to find a good fit for you.

2. Decide on a Location and Program
There might be multiple programs and locations that qualify to meet your desires and needs, depending on what they may be. For me, I knew for certain that I wanted to go to Japan. After all, that is my major and primary country of interest. However, some students want to see many places, or have trouble choosing. It is helpful if you can at least narrow it down to a specific continent. There are programs based on location, duration, and qualifications. The standard duration times are one semester, one academic year, or one calendar year. There are a few shorter options that go for a period of a few weeks to a few months, such as internships. Some programs require certain qualifications to participate. For example, my exchange program to Waseda University requires at least 2 semesters of college level Japanese to be completed before applying, the applicant must be at least a Junior in their academic progress, and a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher must be maintained at all times. If any of these requirements are not met, or if they fall below expectations (such as a decline in GPA), it may result in disqualification from the program.

Once the location, duration and qualifications are evaluated and chosen, it is important to decide on a specific school in the region you want to go to, and which program you wish to apply. For schools, you may only get a list of preferences with no guarantee of receiving your first choice. It varies depending on the amount of openings available for exchange students at each school. Each region and school may have multiple programs that can support you in your study abroad experience. A straight “Exchange” program, for example, is different from applying to an exchange organization such as CIEE (Council on International Educational Exchange). As I understand it, if you apply through a program like CIEE, a lot more assistance is provided, as well as a lot more structure and stricter guidelines that must be followed. The organization will find you a place to stay, will help organize opportunities for group excursions with participating exchange students, and will guide you step by step through the country and your experience. They often also help find and vet host families in the country to voluntarily let you live with them and experience the family life of the locals in your host country. This is a very helpful and comforting option for students who may not feel as confident in figuring everything out on their own and would like step by step guidance and security as they learn their new environment and expectations.

If you choose an “Exchange” program by itself though, it is a straight exchange of one student from the home university with another student from the host university of the foreign country. There is no hand-holding of the students, although there are resources available for help, questions and emergencies. The Exchange program, as opposed to an agency run exchange program, does not plan or organize excursions for you, nor guarantee housing or other accommodations. You can apply to a local home-stay agency if you want to live with a local family for the family experience, but that typically costs a lot more than finding a dorm or apartment for yourself. The program provides the expectations, guidelines and rules that must be followed, answer questions and give resources and advice, but for the most part, you are independently responsible for making your own living arrangements and planning your own excursions if you so desire, providing it is within your budget and does not conflict with your school schedule and obligations. This can be intimidating for students or travelers who have never been to the region before. However, in my case, I have been to Japan once before, in a different part, and I feel confident enough in my language ability and understanding of their culture and economic system that I felt I could handle having more responsibility for myself. The bonus to being in a one-for-one exchange program as opposed to going through another agency, is that I have more freedom to do what I want to do (within my budget and schedule), and the cost of the program overall is generally cheaper. The downside is that it requires more research, more planning and preparation, and there is no guarantee from the program as to living arrangements or financial coverage. All of that is on the individual participant to plan and provide for.

As an example, once I was accepted as an exchange student to Waseda University in Tokyo, I was instructed to complete a survey and application for a student dormitory. If selected, my living arrangements would be established through the university itself and I wouldn’t have to worry about it, I would just have to make sure to follow all of their rules (which are much more strict for school dorms than non-school apartments or houses). However, despite completing the application for housing on time, Waseda did not have enough room for all incoming students, and my request for housing was denied. According to this independent exchange program, that means that I have to make my own housing arrangements from half a world away. So, I did some research and comparative shopping of housing options for students or transient foreigners in Tokyo and I found that there are small apartments, dorms or share-houses that can be rented on a month-to-month basis instead of a mandatory 2+ year contract like most resident apartments require. If you are willing to share your living space with other people, you will get cheaper rates obviously, but there is always the risk that you might not like your roommates. Being an “elderly” 30-year-old college student, I have had my fair share of dorms and roommates in the past and have come to highly value my privacy when I come home, so I was willing to pay a bit extra for an apartment to myself. I will discuss more about dorms, share-houses, and apartments in Japan in a later post. Suffice it to say that I found a small studio apartment that I can fit within my budget and reserved it for my arrival in September 2016. It is less than 20 minutes from the university by public transportation and is downtown Tokyo, near everything. It is small and expensive, but I think the conveniences and opportunities available to me in the area make it worth the cost. So, weigh what level of independence you are comfortable with, and choose the program that best fits your budget and guidance needs.

3. Complete the Application Checklist
After you have selected a program, you must apply for it. You will have an account on the study abroad website for your school, and at least at the University of Colorado, there is a checklist of items to complete by a given deadline to apply for the program you chose with your adviser. Once that checklist is complete, you must wait a while until it is processed by both the home university and the foreign university. You will likely know the status of your acceptance (or rejection) from your home institution first. Once initially accepted into the exchange program by your home institution, you will be allowed to start working on completing the rest of the application process to be fully admitted to the program. It is very much a game of “hurry up and wait.” Anyone who has been in the military or dealt with governmental agencies is familiar with this game. There is a pressure to complete a series of tasks as quickly as possible, and then an unknown period of waiting while it is processed, before they give you the next tasks to complete quickly. These programs are no different, and sometimes even more involved because you are not just dealing with one government, but two (or more). Each government wants everything done their way, but they don’t always agree with each on how it should be done. Sometimes this can cause some delays in processing. You will need a lot of documents, written essays, budget planning, acquiring of a passport, visa, bank statements, etc. Gathering all of the required documentation for the application checklist can be very time consuming (it’s the government, remember?). It is vitally important to start applying for federal IDs and documents as early as possible so that you don’t run out of time as you get closer to leaving. NEVER PROCRASTINATE!!! You will have to wait on them, but never make them wait on you – it will not work out well for you if you wait too long. If something seems to be taking too long, feel free to ask about its status. It is better to check and make sure you didn’t miss something, than assume that it’s their job and end up in trouble. Take responsibility for your own success. (This rule can be applied to ALL areas of life).

4. Save, Budget, Plan, & Apply for Scholarships
An exchange program is not a pre-paid vacation or full ride scholarship program. You still have to pay for your own schooling, as well as your own travels and living costs. The study abroad website should have estimates on program costs, but don’t expect that to be the exact number for you. It is important to have more than enough to cover estimated costs, and a backup plan for emergencies. Whatever your method for paying for college is already at your home university, most likely that is what will be used to pay for college at your host university in a foreign country. However, there may be different rules involved for payment that is accepted. Possibly differences in acceptable scholarships, grants or other financial aid. It is important to communicate and coordinate with the financial aid and study abroad offices to make sure that any financial aid you already have can transfer and be applied to your study abroad program.

For my case specifically, I was in the Air Force for six years and have therefore earned 100% tuition coverage for my university courses at CU. In theory, my benefits will also cover the cost of my exchange program, however, there could be some things that are not covered by military benefits depending on the program or location. It is important for veterans to also communicate closely with the Veteran Services office on campus to verify what can and cannot be covered by their benefits, as this information may change from time to time. The way my program works, is that for the exchange, CU enrolls me in the “Study Abroad” course which applies a “stand-in” course-load for me at my home institution. This course-load is the equivalent of 15 credit hours per semester while I am gone. 15 credit hours per semester is the amount of tuition the GI Bill will pay for during my program. I assume that is what would be billed to other students as well, however they pay for it. Upon return from the program, the amount of courses that were actually taken abroad that can transfer and be applied to my degree program will be calculated and any differences from the 15 credit hour estimate will be adjusted in payments. If I took less, or less transfered, then I will owe back money that was unnecessarily paid for unused credit hours. If I took more courses which transfered, then I will get reimbursed money for taking more than was estimated.

Verify how your tuition is being covered, and apply for study abroad scholarships as well. Apply for as many as you can. The only point where scholarships would no longer be helpful is if the amount of your financial aid becomes more than the cost of your attendance at your home university. For veterans, scholarships that can only be applied to tuition are also useless, because it nullifies GI benefits that go toward tuition. The only scholarships that benefit veterans are general scholarships that can be used for more than just tuition, such as books, housing and other costs. General scholarships will not affect GI Bill benefits, according to the Veteran Services at CU. One such scholarship which I have been selected to receive for my study abroad program, is the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. This scholarship requires a project to be done as a condition for receiving the money, but its funding is invaluable in helping me to be able to afford supplies and housing in a city that has one of the highest cost-of-living rates in the world. Make sure you also apply for FAFSA on time for the study abroad year (and every school year) and keep up good grades. I have received at least 2-3 other grants that I never even applied for simply because of good grades. High GPA’s actually do pay, and you will get more money if your grades are high enough consistently.
Lastly, make sure you have a source of income besides aid for tuition while you are away. Don’t forget that not only do you have to pay for school, but also for travel to get yourself over there, back again, and around the country during your stay. You also have living expenses to cover such as food, housing, supplies, etc. As a veteran, the 9/11 GI Bill provides a monthly housing stipend for full time students that can cover basic living expenses, but for non-veteran students, I have heard that many have to rely on parents or other family to help provide financial support for living expenses during their trip. However you do it, the program requires proof that you will have enough income to cover the cost of your trip and living over there for the full duration of the program. It must be planned, budgeted and documented, so brainstorm, communicate and plan ahead for the long term.

5. Maintain Good Grades & Stay Out of Trouble
This one is pretty self-explanatory. As mentioned previously, good grades can not only help you pay for your schooling through qualifying you for various grants and scholarships you never even asked for, but it also keeps you eligible for your exchange program. In many, if not all cases, there is a minimum GPA requirement to be eligible for studying abroad. If your grades fall too low, you may be disqualified from participating. Also, if you get into trouble in school or with the law, in any country, before or during your program, it could disqualify you from participation. If you are kicked out of your program, any financial aid gained for the program will likely have to be repaid by you. This is variable dependent upon the severity of the offense and the circumstances, but don’t push your luck. If it could be questionable, don’t do it. Be responsible, wise and discerning and make good choices. You can’t go wrong if you do what is right. Profound, isn’t it?

6. Hurry Up & Wait! Be Vigilant, Responsive, and Responsible
Also as stated previously, there is a lot of “hurry up and wait” involved in processing an exchange student application with 2 or more governments. It is vitally important to stay on top of the status of your application. Make sure everything is completed in a timely manner, do it right the first time and check your work. Mistakes and procrastination will only cause you problems, delays, and could cost you your trip if you are too careless or negligent. Once your checklist is complete, you may have a good chunk of wait time before you get confirmation of your acceptance by the foreign institution as well as receiving your COE (Certificate of Eligibility). If you are going to be in the country for more than 90 days, you will have to get a visa from the nearest embassy or consulate of the country you are visiting. To get a visa, you must have US passport AND a COE from the institution you will be attending. Without these documents, you cannot apply for a visa, and without a visa, you cannot enter the country for more than 90 days (if at all). (Note, the 90 day time frame is based on Japanese entry laws. Time scales may vary by country. Check with the embassy/consulate of your host country in the US to determine specifics to that country). If you receive emails, updates or requests regarding your program, prioritize them and respond as soon as possible. Apply for your passport and visa at the earliest possible opportunity. They take time to process and it is important to leave as much time toward the end as possible to remember any last minute adjustments that need to be made. Monitor messages carefully and daily, and be responsible for your own applications. If there are errors, or the wait seems excessive, ask about it and verify everything is on track and have no problems that need your attention. You must take initiative for your own education, travel and cultural experience. Believe me, it is totally worth it!

7. Plan Ahead and Prepare
This may seem redundant, but it is extremely important. The whole checklist and steps involved is about planning and preparing. However, at this point in the process (and earlier), you need to be clearly defining the personal details for preparing for your trip. How long will you be gone? What is the climate like during the length of time that you are there? What do you need to pack? Winter clothes? Summer clothes? Athletic clothes? Do you plan to hike, or go to fancy dinners? Should you bring professional attire for formal events or job interviews? Shoes? Hygiene items? Cultural traditions or concerns? What kind of consumables are easily accessible in your host country for purchase? Are there restrictions on medications or other items that you might normally use? Have you received a travel physical with appropriate vaccinations for the region you are going to? What personal records, documents, IDs, cards and money should you bring? How much money should you travel with? Do you need to order cash in their currency before you leave from a local bank? Who will be affected by your trip? Do you need to put any belongings in storage? Do you need to move? Will you have a place to live when you return? Roommates? Pets to take care of? Notifications to banks, family and other agencies about your travels and absence? How will you pay US bills? Do any bills or services need to be canceled or suspended?

If you don’t address all aspects of your daily life in detail and determine how every bit of it will be affected by your length of absence, it could cause potential problems for you while you are away and when you return. It is a big planning point. You must not only plan for how you are preparing to leave, and what could possibly happen while you are there, but you must also plan for what is happening here at home while you are away and what must be done to ensure a smooth return to a stable home and a life that can move forward as usual. Do you need to change your mailing address? Is there someone who can handle your mail while you’re gone and contact you for anything that needs your attention? Be detailed and thorough in covering all necessities for the full length of your trip.

8. Research Your Host Country & Stay Informed of Changes and Hazards
Research the country you will be visiting. Know the climate ranges for all the seasons in which you will be there. If you plan to travel around the country for sight-seeing, know what supplies you will need for those areas as well, and where you will stay each day (within budget and safety). Sign up for STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) by the US Dept. Of State to stay informed about hazards or emergencies that may occur in your region. Be aware of natural disaster risks and procedures. Read and browse travel.state.gov for important embassy, safety and regional information that can be vital in emergencies. Check government travel resources for regional alerts and warnings. Also check embassy notes about high risk areas, crime rates and patterns, and things to watch out for. Be defensive in your travel habits and hobbies, don’t go to unsafe places at unsafe times. Traveling alone at night on a city strip around a lot of bars, or in back alleys is probably not a good idea. Be careful where you drink if you choose to do so. Make sure you are of legal age for that region, and make sure you are in a reputable neighborhood and facility at a safe time with safe people. Be smart. Be responsible. Be safe.

9. Double Check EVERYTHING and Confirm
Double check all of your paperwork that has been given to you, all requirements, all IDs and important documents. Double check your packing and preparedness. Double check all reservations and flights. Remember, you are responsible for purchasing your own flight tickets to and from as well, make sure they are purchased early and verify everything is on track and firmly reserved. If you have to spend a night in a hotel (as I will), check with the hotel again before you leave to make sure the reservation is still in their system and scheduled properly. Review how to get there from the airport and how much money you will need. If you made your own housing arrangements as I did, confirm that before leaving as well and make sure there are no mistakes. Know when, where and how to get transportation where you need to go upon arrival. Order currency ahead of time from a bank to have emergency cash on hand in case cards are not accepted. Some countries (including Japan) are still very cash-oriented societies and some places still don’t have card readers or can’t take foreign cards. I personally recommend about $200 worth of the local currency of the host country be with you before you leave the US to cover possible emergencies or to buy food or lodging.

10. GO! Time to leave! Have a Fantastic Study Abroad Experience! 🙂 (Don’t be late!)

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