Brave new world: Studying abroad provides unique learning opportunities

University of St. Thomas student Scott Carpenter carved himself a comfortable (though admittedly cold) spot in New Zealand during a study abroad trip to the University of Otago. His advice: Get out and explore the world before a full-time career kicks in.
Photo By: Scott Carpenter
“I learned the most by talking to other students and going out and participating in various activities with students from all over the world.”

Bungee jumping. Jet boating. Luging.

Hiking through picturesque mountains, passes and glaciers.

Scott Carpenter also did some studying during a five-month spring semester in Queenstown, New Zealand — the “adventure sports capital of the world.” Just not in an environment most American college students are used to.

“It is not what you think of traditional classroom learning,” said Carpenter, a senior English major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. “I learned the most by talking to other students and going out and participating in various activities with students from all over the world.”

Carpenter attended the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand through a study abroad program run by Arcadia University. It was a chance for the Owatonna native to get out of the Midwest and explore the world before “graduating school and being tied down by work or other financial, relationship obligations.”

Inspiration from his sisters’ travels led Carpenter to pursue a study abroad opportunity, one that around 1,000 St. Thomas students take advantage of annually, said Sarah Huesing, a study abroad advisor at St. Thomas. According to national trends from Open Doors, a program run by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, 50 percent of undergraduates embark on an overseas study trip during their time in college.

St. Thomas’ specialties include studying in Rome at the Angelicum campus and a popular London Business program where students not only earn college credit in Great Britain’s largest city, but get to travel throughout the rest of Europe. Common majors that study abroad include business, journalism, psychology and language, but science and engineering students are becoming increasingly more aware of overseas opportunities, Huesing said.

“It was not necessarily where I traveled, but the impact of being overseas that as a whole … changed me,” said Huesing, who turned those early international visits into a career path.

“I had never been outside of my comfort zone. I was very much a homebody (before). Now, I hope other students have the opportunity, as well.”

Before digging your passport out, there are some essentials to know about the study abroad experience:

Do your research: Become familiar with the wide array of options and programs available. That way, students can find what fits them academically and personally. Once you’ve applied for a program, set up an appointment with an advisor who will walk you through the basic steps. This not only includes cultural details, but financial components including campus scholarship opportunities or national ones targeting merit or money-based needs.

A “first step session will teach you how to research your program and apply online — there is a separate application process,” Huesing said. “ We talk through academics, financial and cultural things so one can feel more comfort in knowing that advisors will answer all questions possible when choosing a program.”

Know your options: Travel methods can include a faculty led program with a class, a self-guided trip with a host family or a program at a specific country’s university. St. Thomas trips can vary by length — a year, semester, J-term, month or summer long. Summer abroad programs last 3 to 10 weeks and are especially popular with students involved in sports during the regular academic year.

Determine your budget: Read the fine print so you know what is/isn’t included in a program. For example, when looking over meal costs, verify what’s pre-covered (a host family may also be providing them) and what’s out of pocket. Also important: Figure out the exchange rate. Anticipate major city costs since they’ll be more expensive. Europe tends to have a higher cost of living compared to say, South America. This also factors into personal expenses. Since he wasn’t aware of how much money to bring with him, Carpenter said he lost about 35 pounds because, “I couldn’t afford to eat.”

Money is often at the “forefront of a lot of people’s minds” when determining travel options, Huesing said. After all, many students overseas either can’t take jobs or, as Carpenter pointed out, aren’t legally allowed to because of work visa eligibility issues.

Huesing said another potential roadblock is loss of an “easy support system.” Being in a new country without familiar faces can be stressful. Students may miss American classmates. The language barrier can lead to tough adjustments and miscommunication. As silly as it sounds, there may also be conflict with an international student or host family about everyday issues like allergies to a family pet or vegetarian food preferences.

Shy by nature, Carpenter said he learned to open up and embrace his new surroundings. While in New Zealand, he lived in a flat with several international students and a native Kiwi.

“Introversion is not insurmountable,” Carpenter said. “The laid-back lifestyle there made it hit home to me that there is so much more to life than making money. I had to completely reassess my plans for post-grad life.”

That future includes more travel, graduate school and teaching English abroad after finishing his St. Thomas studies in May, preferably in Sweden.

Exposure to other cultures often has that kind of life-altering effect for study abroad students, Huesing said. Not only is it an opportunity to build a resume, but socially, it teaches students to become more culturally competent and increase their independence, problem solving and language skills.

Perhaps best of all, it forges lifelong relationships with new friends from the United States and beyond.

“I am definitely not ready to forego (another chance to travel) just to enter the workforce and settle down for the rest of my life,” Carpenter said. “I want to see the world.”