There are tons of articles out there listing the best reasons to study abroad. But many of them don’t really capture the study abroad experience, in my opinion. Some even feel as if they were written by a person who’s never actually been in a foreign country.
Because I have lived outside of the U.S., I wanted to share my study abroad experience in the hope that it motivates you to get on a plane.
There, I said it. Now you know the endgame: I want you to study abroad because it is an enriching, life-changing experience. Here’s why you should do it.
I’m writing this primarily with American university students in mind. While the reasons to study abroad don’t change for the British or German student reading this, the details might.
Whatever your nationality is, I hope that you find this post encouraging. And don’t forget to tell me in the comments where you’re planning to go!
RedLine’s List of 11 Reasons to Study Abroad
1. You’ll improve your language skills.
One of the best reasons to study abroad is to improve your proficiency in a foreign language. Notice that I didn’t say become fluent, because a semester abroad won’t turn you into a professional interpreter. But you will get much, much better at speaking your second or third language.
If you’re an aspiring teacher of foreign languages, then this is a no-brainer for you. Your spoken French, for example—even after only a semester “in country”—will be better than that of the guy from your college language class who didn’t go abroad.
Okay, so you don’t want to teach. But being able to speak Spanish—even casually—will allow you to speak to people in the U.S. who you may never have approached before.
2. You’ll live in a different culture.
Despite what the Internet has done for global communication, the world is still a big place with thousands of different cultures. At the moment, you’re probably familiar with only one.
But living abroad forces you to function in a context unlike the one you grew up in. Even if you study in a place where English is the native language—such as the UK, Ireland, or Australia—the culture is still noticeably different than the one you know. (Exhibit A: the Vegemite sandwich.)
The skills you’ll gain while navigating that different culture—regardless of whether you’re in Rome, Beijing, or Dublin—will make you more adaptable.
3. You’ll eat amazing food.
If you’re anything like me, then you look forward to every meal. And if you’re even halfway adventurous, then one of the best reasons to study abroad (or at least a nice side benefit) is that you get to taste insanely good food. (Unless you go to England, of course… Oh, but I jest!)
My time in France was marked by meals that I still remember—and my study abroad experience was 19 years ago.
My host mother in Alsace made a traditional choucroute that I emailed my parents about the next day. A friend made a dinner for me one night, stuffing lamb chops with garlic cloves and serving them to me with about six glasses of wine—I remember only that it was delicious. While I was in Dijon, I tasted a rabbit dish that was so good I completely forgot that I was eating rabbit.
And that’s just in France. Imagine what you’ll be able to try when you spend a semester in Mexico, Japan, Poland, Argentina, or Senegal. Oh, man, I wish I could do it again!
4. You’ll meet like-minded people.
It takes a certain kind of personality to want to live abroad.
And that means that when you touch down in Germany, you’re likely going to be surrounded by other international students (in addition to German locals) who are there for some of the same reasons you are: they want to improve their language skills, they like to travel, they have a sense of adventure, and so on.
Now, I hope you’re sitting down for this, but you might even meet your soulmate while studying abroad. Not yet thinking about settling down? That’s okay, there’s no rush!
But if you’ve ever dreamed about spending the rest of your life with someone from another country, then studying abroad is a good first step. I have many friends and colleagues who are in “binational relationships” and—surprise, surprise—most of them met while one of them was studying abroad in the other’s home country.
“Okay, Matt, that’s great and all,” you’re probably saying. “But I don’t want to marry a guy from France.”
Well, you don’t have to. But you just might find that one of the Americans in your study abroad cohort is someone worth getting to know better.
Take me, for instance. The American woman who would later become my wife was teaching English in France just like I was. I never would have met her had we both not shared an interest in living in France.
(C’mon—do you even need any more reasons to study abroad besides finding your future life partner?)
5. You’ll meet people who don’t think anything like you.
Confused? Don’t be. This is a good thing.
One of the best reasons to study abroad (as I look back on my own study abroad experience, anyway) is that you learn how to get along with people who aren’t like you.
They speak another language, eat different foods, play different sports—they may even worship differently or not all. They may favor a more collectivist society while you value good ol’ American individualism.
Well, you see where I’m going with this. The person who can successfully navigate an unfamiliar social landscape can do, well, just about anything. Because it can be hard—really hard.
I remember speaking to a colleague of mine when I lived in France (granted, I was teaching, not studying, but that’s not important) who was railing against the comparatively weak social safety net that we have in the U.S. You see, in France, everyone is guaranteed health care, and it’s paid for by the state.
And Vincent was beside himself, practically blaming me in the process for the fact that the U.S. has a largely privatized health care system.
My point is that because we worked together, each of us had to recognize that the other came from what might as well have been another planet. Thanks to such situations, you learn not to assume that everyone around you shares your viewpoint.
6. You’ll excel in your future job.
No list of reasons to study abroad would be complete without a mention of job prospects. You may not be thinking about your career. But your time abroad will likely be invaluable in your future jobs.
But you’ll be able to walk into any job interview once you graduate from college and say with confidence, “I play well with others.” (Actually, don’t say that. It’s not a good opening line.)
But the sentiment is something that you should bring up. Employers love knowing that they won’t have to referee disputes in the workplace. Getting along with people from different backgrounds is crucial for any job that you think of, with the possible exceptions of gravedigger and lighthouse keeper.
If I had a choice between hiring a candidate who has lived abroad and one who hasn’t, I would—all else being equal—hire the seasoned traveler in a heartbeat. And it seems that I’m not alone.
7. You’ll develop resourcefulness.
While I was living in Strasbourg, France, I had to see a doctor. My spoken French wasn’t that great, and I knew almost no health-related vocabulary.
So in addition to my halting explanations, I used hand gestures. And facial expressions. And sound effects. (I imagined the doctor going home that night and saying to his wife, “Honey, you won’t believe the weirdo who I saw today in the office today…”)
Though this struggle to be understood can be frustrating, it also helps you become more resourceful. Applied linguists call this circumlocution.
Once you find yourself having to read maps and street signs in a foreign language, you become more self-reliant. And when you’re stuck at a stop waiting for a bus that won’t come, your survival skills kick in. (I don’t explicitly recommend hitchhiking, of course…)
8. You’ll gain self-confidence.
This reason for studying abroad is actually tied to the previous reason. As you develop resourcefulness, you’ll find that your self-confidence grows.
As you navigate the linguistic, social, and cultural landscape in Spain (or England or Germany), you’ll become more and more comfortable. You’ll be able to order a meal with ease, strike up a conversation with a local, or join an organization in your city.
In the early days of my time abroad, my language skills were so rough that I made a major gaffe in a café. In trying to say merci beaucoup (“thank you very much”), I mispronounced it as merci beau cul (“thanks, nice ass”). My server was not happy.
But guess what? I never made that mistake again. I began perfecting my pronunciation, making sure that my ou was distinct from my u. (Learners of French, you know what I’m talking about.)
I know it may seem like a silly example, but I’m sharing because it illustrates the point. The process of making mistakes—linguistic or otherwise—accelerates your learning and gives your confidence a major bump.
9. You’ll make lifelong friends.
To this day, I’m in touch with people I met and befriended while I lived abroad: Vanessa, Thibaut, Pascal, and Joël from France; Guido from Germany; Karen and Meghan from Canada; Nick and Daniel from England; and Adam, Sam, Ben, and Nate from the good ol’ U.S. of A.
These people were on the same journey as I was, so to speak. I gravitated towards them because they valued the same things I did. They were as open to hanging out with me (a guy from suburban Philadelphia) as I was to hanging out with them.
I actually think that the friendships that you make while abroad can be deeper (if not longer-lasting) than your at-home friendships. This is because you’re in an unfamiliar place and so are your fellow study abroad students. You bond in large part due to the circumstances.
And what’s better than a good friend? Making this type of connection is easily one of the best reasons to study abroad.
10. You’ll educate the locals about your culture.
The weird, inescapable fact is that when you live abroad you automatically become an ambassador for your country, your culture, and—to a much lesser extent—your college. (Do you think the locals in Budapest have any preconceived notions about your small, Midwestern liberal arts college?)
This might seem like a bad thing. After all, who wants to have to defend his or her national government (or history or architecture)? That’s not what you signed up for!
But it’s actually a golden opportunity to educate the citizens of your host country about the U.S.
I remember in France being asked how many guns I owned since, you know, I’m American and therefore I must have a small arsenal of assault rifles. This started a conversation that was both funny and educational.
The point is this: you have the chance to correct the misconceptions of the Italian or Mexican or Chinese students who you come into contact with.
And the reverse is true: for example, I learned that no one in France actually wears a beret. Two years abroad and not a single beret sighting!
That kind of cultural knowledge alone is worth the price of admission.
11. You’ll become (more of) an adult.
Okay, you’re what, a sophomore? A junior? That makes you about 20 years old, assuming you didn’t take any time off between high school and college.
So you’re in that weird no-man’s-land where you feel like an adult but people your parents’ age still don’t quite think of you as an adult. And this is where the study abroad experience comes in.
I spent my entire junior year in college studying in France. (Well, living, really. Studying was kind of an afterthought, if I’m being honest.) And when I got back to my university for my senior year I felt totally different.
I felt older, which of course I was. But I also felt more mature.
In fact, I actually felt that I didn’t have a lot in common with many of my friends who hadn’t studied abroad. And who knows? Maybe they felt it, too.
I had just had an experience that was nothing short of transformative, while most of my college friends had continued going to the same classes, drinking beer at the same parties, and ordering pizza from the same late-night eateries.
It was a strange feeling, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was growth.
12. You’ll suck the marrow out of the bone of life.
If I haven’t given you enough reasons to study abroad, then here’s my trump card: you have exactly one life to live. (Hey, that would make a great title for a TV show…)
Only 1% of college students go abroad. One percent. Studying abroad, then, is pretty rare. And the people who do it are members of an exclusive club.
I have two young boys, and I’ve already begun showing maps to them, talking to them about other countries, and discussing foods that people eat across the globe. Why? Because you can’t be a global citizen if you don’t know anything about other people.
You have a chance to do something that only 1 in 100 college students does. Will you take it?
Living abroad is by turns exhilarating and scary. But if you get on that plane and spend a semester or two in another country, I guarantee you that you’ll come back a changed person.
These are my reasons to study abroad. Yours may be different.
But if you have a question or need encouragement, then leave me a comment below!