Putting the “Study” in Study Abroad
When participating in a Study Abroad program, the “studying” aspect of the experience can sometimes take a back seat to everything else there is to do while living in a foreign country, to the detriment of your academic performance. Especially in the first month, there seems to be a prioritization of parties, get-togethers, and day trips, rather than settling into your modules and getting ahead of your coursework. While it is certainly acceptable to focus your attention on meeting new people and exploring the local cultural landscape, falling too far behind in class early on can create an insurmountable obstacle later on in the semester.
The Learning Curve
Adjusting to a new way of life abroad presents a unique challenge to a college student. In addition to the differences in communicating, eating, and travelling, study abroad students are also faced with differences in learning and studying. For example, I went from a business school of 2,500 students in a Massachusetts suburb to a university of more than 15,000 students in the heart of central London. The academic differences hit almost as hard as the culture shock. I was shocked when UK students addressed the instructors by their first name! My new host university had different class sizes, a different style of teaching, and a different grading scale. From registering for courses, to sitting in my first lecture, to completing my first assessments, my academic obligations required increased attention in order to figure everything out. It can be frustrating to spend so much time on academics when my principle reasons for studying abroad were non-academic. However, I have quickly realized that the responsibility is on me to truly embrace the spirit of a study abroad experience.
Why it Matters
It is important to remember that your study abroad experience will, unfortunately, not last forever. You must eventually return to your home institution, where your friends, family, professors, and GPA will be waiting for you. This is why your academic responsibilities are so important while you are studying abroad. You must be aware of your degree progression at home, and take this into consideration when looking at the credits you are enrolled in, any minimum grade requirements, and how courses taken abroad will transfer back to your home university. I was surprised to learn that in the U.K., students study for three years for an undergraduate degree, unlike the typical four years in the U.S. Because of this, I needed to stay in frequent communication with my academic dean at home to make sure I was taking courses that were appropriate for my grade level and degree. Not only must you consider your degree progression, but you might also be required to meet a minimum attendance rate as part of your stay in the U.K. as a student. On top of these more concrete requirements, the main point of participating in a study abroad program is to engage with a different culture, and academics are an essential part of that engagement.
A Strategy for Success
While the distractions inherent in a study abroad program can be tempting, maintaining a strategy for staying on top of your schoolwork is essential for an academically successful semester.
1) Enroll in classes that you need AND want to take. You should enroll in courses that contribute to your major and/or degree. You don’t what to waste time taking courses that you won’t get credit for. With that said, you should also enroll in courses that interest you. A boring class will not give you the motivation to study for it.
2) Take advantage of course options you don’t have at home. Because I attend a business school at home, there is not a wide variety of non-business courses offered. So, on my semester abroad, I am taking advantage of the fact that the University of Westminster has courses in a wide variety of fields, by taking two criminology courses. It is a nice change of pace from the finance courses I’m used to, which keeps me interested and wanting to learn more. This makes my courses feel less like an obligation, and something I look forward to.
3) Engage with the class materials and classmates.
I took advantage of the fact that my Justice and Human Rights course offered a tour of the British Supreme Court. Not only did this outing contribute to my understanding of the course material, it also contributed to my getting more familiar with my host country. It was an overall fun experience, which allowed me to engage with my professor and other students outside of the classroom. Just like at home, you get out of your classes what you put in. Putting in the effort to engage in class can make your study abroad experience so much more valuable.
When you first arrive in a new country on a study abroad program, there is a million things you will want to do. Reading 20 pages of a textbook is not one of those things. However, you cannot neglect your responsibilities as a student. In addition to the fact that you are paying tuition fees in order to study abroad, academic engagement is an important aspect of cultural engagement. While it may not be easy, balance between school and fun is the key to a successful semester or year abroad.
Shane Crawford is a Finance Major at Babson College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom during the Fall of 2021. He is a recipient of the IFSA First Generation College Student Scholarship