A ‘life-changing’ experience: How students can make the most out of studying abroad

Whether in Venice or Vietnam, Steve Duke, director of the Center for International Studies, advises students to go beyond being tourists to interact in significant ways with those who live in the country they are visiting. Making cultural connections is what makes study abroad the most meaningful, he says.

Explain the value of the study-abroad experience.

Many students report that studying abroad was “life changing” or “powerful,” even years after the experience. Our goal is for every Wake Forest student to have a meaningful international experience. In addition to seeing a different part of the world, study abroad helps you learn about yourself. Often, the personal development a student experiences is more important in the long run than what they learned in the classroom. Being abroad also provides numerous opportunities to develop intercultural skills as you learn to communicate with people from different backgrounds. For me, staying with a family in Russia for two months when I was a student gave me huge insight into the day-to-day life in that country. The real value of getting on buses, going to local restaurants and even shopping is to breathe, taste and feel local life.

How can students make the most of study abroad?

Too often, students spend their free time traveling, rather than joining a club, participating in a language or cultural exchange, meeting people from the host country, or simply hanging out in a café or library and observing life. I encourage students to step outside their comfort zone and learn about the country and people of their host country and not be too quick to get on a train to add one more place to their list of places visited.

What are the most important things students need to know before studying abroad?

Students should learn as much as possible about academics (what courses they will take and how they are taught) and daily life (housing, meals, local transportation) in their intended study-abroad location. But, studying abroad is much more than housing and coursework, since it also provides an opportunity to learn about the local culture and people and truly understand a different way of life. We encourage students to spend time learning about the country and its history and current development. Students tend to do well with basic logistical and academic aspects while overseas, but sometimes need to remember to simply appreciate the culture they are visiting.

How can students best learn to recognize cultural patterns and values, understand cultural nuances, and appreciate the culture they are visiting?

Cultural patterns and values become more visible and tangible when you encounter them face-to-face. Students need to “break out of the bubble” and meet people, even if it feels awkward at first. It is critical that students learn about themselves and their own cultural patterns and values, in order to recognize both commonalities and differences. Reading about another country or culture is a good first step. But things learned by reading come alive when interacting with individuals from the local culture. Students who are crossing cultures should keep their eyes and minds open and actively observe how another culture operates.

Crossing cultures involves so many things, from learning how others dress and eat to how they use their time and how they relate to those around them. Cross-cultural challenges often arise when people don’t recognize that they approach life from different points of view and with a different set of values. The best way to handle the confusion that can arise is to observe commonalities and differences and try to understand the values that influence those differences.

How should students go about choosing where/when to study abroad?

Plan early. We encourage students to come to the Center for International Studies and meet with a study-abroad advisor, who can help them learn about the different types of programs around the world. Certain programs are more appropriate for certain majors, so learning about your options early in the process makes it easier to make decisions about programs. Lower division and major advisors also work hard to help students plan their academic schedule so they can find time to study abroad. Students in every major can study abroad as long as they plan ahead. In addition, a significant amount of scholarship money is available to help students study abroad. Financial aid packages can “travel” with you for a fall or spring semester abroad, so finances don’t need to be a major obstacle.

You have started hosting the Workshop on Intercultural Skills Enhancement (WISE) each year to better prepare faculty from around the country to lead study-abroad trips. Why do you think this is so important?

Most faculty are like most students when they prepare to go abroad. They think about where they will live, what they will study and where they will travel. So, this workshop is to help focus on the culture and how faculty can open up a world of cultural interaction for students. Faculty who lead study-abroad programs can help students by talking with students before departure about the cultural patterns and values in the location where they will study. Once the group arrives, they can include aspects of the local culture in the group’s curricular and extra-curricular activities. Most importantly, they can arrange for their group to meet people from the local culture. Faculty who lead study-abroad programs should know as much about the target culture and language as possible, as that will help them navigate the local customs and enable them to help students both inside and outside the classroom.

Categories: International, Student