Studying abroad: why do it?

A teacher’s two cents

study abroad

Photo: Nicholas Favero
Students in front of Oslo’s train station. Life abroad provides opportunity for travel and new friends.

John F. L. Ross
Oslo, Norway

Why go abroad for college-level study? And why study in Norway? As someone who did neither one, I might seem poorly situated to address, much less answer, both questions. Still, their essentials—education, student life, exchange programs, study trips—practically surround me. And I do have experience to draw on, but for that we need to reel it back a few decades.

I went overseas to study after finishing my bachelor’s degree. Weighing American vs. European programs, London popped up as an obvious middle way. A Master’s could be done in a calendar year instead of two, which I assumed meant British education was twice as good. It wasn’t, but the right side of the Atlantic proved the right choice for me. Doors opened in mysterious ways, marking my life ever since.

I spent my (first) London year shivering in a ground-floor room near Marble Arch, windows rattling with incessant traffic. Heating consisted of a coin-operated contraption, my roommate and I stuffing it with five-pence coins that we hoped would outlast the night. It left the indelible memories that only misery can provide. We cooked on a hot plate and drank stout at the corner pub; I grew attached to Indian food, tweed jackets, and milky tea. I did study, rather hard. Come spring, still enamored of London and still determined to put off real life, I stayed on for my doctorate.

The rest may not be history, but it’s my history. I wound up with two British degrees, which led to work in and around my field, international relations. I even married a fellow student met that pivotal year. While deciding what to do with my life, my life direction was being forged.

Study abroad has changed utterly since my day. When I went, nobody greeted me, handed me maps, or directed me to a special office; I found my own housing by wandering around on foot.

Today, advice is plentiful and options mind-boggling. Universities brag about their global presence. In economic terms, it’s a buyer’s market. Almost everything—course credits, experiential courses, travel, funding—is easier to access than ever. Not to explore the possibilities seems unduly self-limiting. 

Where to go? Many countries have exchange programs, and most universities offer courses in English, open to undergraduates. My milieu is northern Europe, where the people are linguistically adept, globally minded, digitally attuned, and discreetly welcoming to the student visitor. If you want a taste of where the world might be headed, some months in Scandinavia would be a good tonic.

There is another factor, too. Studying abroad opens endless travel possibilities, thanks to the quiet revolution in air travel since 2000. Even in my time, before discount fares and the Channel Tunnel, the London School of Economics, where I studied, bore the nickname “Let’s See Europe,” for good reason. As a faculty presence, I probably shouldn’t be touting this side of study abroad, but I have to be realistic.

I have students who disappear after midweek and reappear Monday morning, tired but happy after long weekends exploring Dublin or Berlin. They see more of Europe in months than I saw in years. Those who travel the most also seem to get the best grades. There’s a link and a lesson there; travel really is the best teacher.

Accessibility has done wonders for Norway, which once seemed remote. Now it’s an ideal study/travel destination. Oslo is an hour’s flying time from Stockholm and Copenhagen and two from Holland and Germany. A smartphone, a debit card and some ingenuity lets students piece together international trips in a flash. And Norway, of course, is a travel wonderland in its own right.

I’ve gotten into the swing of things myself, leading student groups to Svalbard, in Norway’s extreme north, in connection with a course I teach on the Arctic. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of destination. The point is that travel of the official, credited kind is also expanding as a study feature in itself.

To my mind, a year abroad beats a semester, which flies by. There is value in not rushing things, and in Norway’s case, seeing the long winter transformed into scintillating Nordic spring. But often it’s more practicable to limit stays to one term. Spring term is more flexible time-wise; you can decide in October to head abroad in January. But fall tends to deliver better weather in Europe and often some great discounts.

Not enough thought is given to the size and locale of the place of study. London in the 1980s was fantastic, a student-affordable cultural beehive. But its immensity took getting used to. At 23 it was just manageable; at 19 or 20 it might have overwhelmed me. Better to base yourself in a smaller place, off the beaten track, without the 24/7, big-city frenzy, and use it like Everest Base Camp. Keep Paris and Amsterdam for planned getaways, allowing some breathing space—and, naturally, study time—in between.

Of course, there are arguments for not going. Nobody is forcing you. The internet makes you global from your couch at home. Relocating means you have to pack and move, twice. Course options abroad can be restricted. At first you might feel strange, lonely, or homesick. It costs. The world can be scary. None of this should be treated lightly.

But staying put offers no guarantees either. Life brings risks, but life’s risks are better faced with a variety of experience under your belt. Comfort zones are constructed things.

The downside of study abroad is manageable, while the upside is enhanced opportunities, a boosted CV and a memory-blizzard of experience. You’ll see things and places you hardly knew existed. New friendships can be forged without losing your old ones. It’s almost like reaping two harvests at once.

Time in a foreign clime opens you up, makes you more aware of the world and your place in it. Perspectives change in the other direction, too. You’ll get a new appreciation of life back home. There’s a reason why comparison is the mother of learning. Remember Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz? Think how much richer her homecoming was because of her wanderings.

Studying abroad may not change your life. But chances are it will enrich, expand and deepen it. And that’s a pretty good wager.

 

John Ross writes frequently on Norway and is currently adjunct professor at the American College of Norway in Moss.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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