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Why Study Abroad?

by Dara Fisk-Ekanger

Avocados the size of footballs and active volcanoes just on the other side of town ... This study-abroad program took some getting used to. Walking into my bedroom and finding that my Costa Rican host mother had rearranged the furniture for the tenth time wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I signed up for the Latin American Studies Program (LASP). But I’d wanted new sights, new sounds, freedom from confining classrooms and adventure. I got it.

During three and a half months at LASP I lived with a Costa Rican host family (mom, dad and three adorable children whose Spanish I never quite understood). I attended conferences with government officials, missionaries and native Latin Americans; traveled in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala; taught English in a public high school for two weeks; and learned more than I bargained for.

With a major in Spanish and a concentration in international/multicultural studies at Evangel University (Springfield, Mo.), I found that a study-abroad program was the perfect opportunity to put my classroom knowledge to the test. LASP is one of several off-campus study programs of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

The constantly new sights, sounds and smells my senses experienced were invigorating. Reading about jungles may be interesting to some, but tasting the delectable tropical fruit guanabana can only be described as heavenly. Streets paved with potholes, more rain than I’d ever seen, and rice and beans for two (or three) meals a day—all this was a part of learning to see life from another’s point of view.

Classroom study is important, but for many students it is not enough. Elijah Lovejoy, a junior at Erskine College (Due West, S.C.) and current Russian Studies Program student (CCCU) recently e-mailed, “This semester has been invaluable. I have seen Russia’s problems and potential with my own eyes, heard its people tell their stories and stood where historical events actually took place. Studying Russia from American soil is good, but it cannot compare with the knowledge and insight gained by experiencing the country firsthand.”

If you think study abroad is for you, here’s what you need to know:

Pick a Program

What aspect of study abroad interests you? Worldwide, there are numerous off-campus study programs dedicated to the environment, missions, international business, language, architecture, journalism, public policy and history, to name just a few. But before buying that plane ticket, ask yourself a few questions. Do you imagine living with a host family or in a dorm? Are you drawn to a classroom setting, travel, hands-on internship or all of the above? Do you prefer a full semester immersion, summer stint, or two-week taste? Whatever your interest, a program that matches likely exists.

Every program has unique requirements. Investigate before applying! There are several ways to find a reputable program. Talk to other students, your academic advisor or department head for recommendations. The CCCU offers nine programs to Christian college students and endorses several others. and the Institute of International Education offer links to hundreds of off-campus study programs, information on scholarships, travel discounts and more.

But I Can’t Afford It!

The cost of study abroad programs may not be as prohibitive as you might expect. My semester in Costa Rica was approximately $500 more than a semester at my home campus. Some fellow students actually paid less to participate in LASP than they would have if they had stayed home. Program fees differ greatly. If you’re willing to sacrifice (I sold my car and became a pedestrian for eight months) and plan well in advance, there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to come up with the money. Existing financial aid often (but not always) applies to off-campus study. For further information regarding actual costs, contact the program you are interested in. Then speak with your chief academic officer or off-campus program coordinator about financial aid.

Credit My Account Please

Some programs offer college credit directly, which your college may or may not accept. Others coordinate your enrollment in a host country’s university. CCCU student programs function as extension campuses of member colleges and universities. Be sure to speak with your academic advisor or study abroad office coordinator long before paying a program deposit fee to ensure all credits will be accepted by your college.

Apply ASAP

Application due dates vary widely from program to program, with some organizations accepting students on a rolling basis. CCCU deadlines are generally mid-April for fall programs and late October for spring. You should begin researching programs at least a year in advance, if possible. Don’t wait until the last minute. References, essays and detailed academic records are required by many of the more competitive programs.

¿Parlez usted Deutsche?

So you aren’t fluent. Don’t panic. Language is often a major concern to students considering an overseas excursion. Many programs require a certain level of proficiency in the host language before beginning the cross-cultural experience. Even so, you may occasionally feel frustrated. One student said, “I am trying to communicate concepts of a 20-year-old with the vocabulary of a three-year-old!” But this is your best opportunity for growth. Though my host family often broke into uncontrollable laughter at my mutilation of their language, people generally seemed quite patient with non-native speakers and pleased when students made an effort to speak their language.

To Do List

No matter what program you choose, before packing your bags, remember to:

  • Apply for a passport as soon as possible. Applications are available at the post office.
  • Make sure your vaccinations are up to date. Contact the U.S. Center for Disease Control for vaccine recommendations for countries in which you may be traveling.
  • Check with your health insurance company to determine if coverage is available while in a foreign country. If needed, you can obtain short-term health coverage from another agency.
  • Obtain an International Student I.D. card from the Council on International Student Exchange. The cards offer limited insurance coverage in the event of an emergency, and are great for discounts on restaurants, museums, airline tickets and other services.
  • Contact the U.S. State Department for information on health and personal safety while abroad. Consular information sheets on specific countries and the fact sheets “A Safe Trip Abroad” and “Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad” are available online from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs or by writing the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 20402.
  • Check with your long-distance phone company about an international calling card account number. You may save a small fortune in phone bills.
  • Make sure your finances, including signing student loan papers and endorsing checks, are taken care of before leaving home.
  • Take a small medical kit, allergy medicine, bug repellent, sunscreen, anti-diuretics, aspirin and camera and film. These items may be more expensive or unavailable overseas.
  • Traveler’s checks are a good idea, but at times they’re difficult to exchange. Keep some cash on hand.
  • Leave all valuables at home.
  • Travel lightly. Pack everything you think you need, then eliminate half of it. Most students bring far more than necessary.

Building bridges between peoples of different cultures may require exposure to conditions to which you are unaccustomed. Holly Gerberich, a Messiah College (Grantham, Penn.) senior currently studying in China, said, “Living here requires patience, flexibility, humility and a great sense of humor. Sometimes breathing is difficult due to the pollution, and all you long for is a nice cup of coffee or a piping hot pizza. Then you remember that you will never again eat food like what’s here in Xi’an. You develop a taste for quality tea. Your own health becomes secondary when compared to all of the millions of people who live and die here.”

Your cross-cultural living may not seem as comfortable as “back home,” but the wealth of experience you will gain is worth the adjustment. Holly continues, “China will play a major role in world politics and business in the future. With my interest in foreign relations and international business, I am convinced that gaining a true understanding of this culture is vital and can only be achieved by experiencing it from the inside.”

Even three years after my LASP experience I have not reverted to looking at the world as I did before. I had studied economics, but the problems of poverty didn’t touch my heart until I met a Nicaraguan family of 12 who lived on $40 a month. I had seen pictures of hungry children, but I didn’t feel a responsibility to help ease their suffering until I visited the Guatemala City dump, home to more than 2,000 children. I remembered hearing of “disappearances,” but didn’t pay much attention until I met a woman whose son was hauled out of bed in the middle of the night and never seen again. I came to understand that I had been blessed beyond measure, and that I (a “poor” college student) was exceedingly rich—not just in material wealth, but in education, opportunities and the freedom to determine what to do with my life.

Though I will always miss the special bond with my host family and long to return to the land of fiery volcanoes, I couldn’t have asked for anything else from my study abroad experience ... except possibly the chance to do it again.

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