Friday, May 2, 2014

Academics Abroad

"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." -Henry Miller

I was giving a classroom presentation on studying abroad the other day when a student asked a question that is probably a common one: how do you find the time to focus on academics abroad when there are so many new things to do and see, and people to meet?  It took me off guard: it's a great question of course, but it seems so mundane compared to all of the other exciting parts of studying abroad, that I know that I've found it easy to overlook in my classroom presentations and advising sessions and probably in my own personal consideration process before studying abroad.

My answer to that particular student that day was that the challenge may be a bit bigger, but essentially it's the same challenge that all college students face. It can be hard to focus on academics with so many exciting things going on, but while at school and abroad, it is important to remember that academics are a huge part of what you are doing there in the first place. The cultural exchanges, new international friends, and global perspectives are incredibly important, and may even be what you remember most, but you are first and foremost a student.

The question made me think back to my own experiences with academics while abroad, and I realized that that balance was definitely a challenge for me at times. This was especially true toward the end of the year when I knew more people, and everybody was constantly trying to fit in one last (and then one more, and one more) hurrah before we all went home. It's important to keep in mind, however, that your classes do count back home. Additionally, your classmates, professors and the course content can give you immense and valuable insight into your host culture and field of study.

Students studying outside the Goethe University in Frankfurt

Before you go abroad, it may be helpful to know that you will be expected to be enrolled as a full time student (12 credits) or risk losing full time status, and face loan repayment. As you plan your course load, make sure you pay attention to how credits abroad are converted to U.S. credits. Additionally, it is recommended that you do not overload on classes, precisely because a healthy balance between academic and non-academic opportunities will help you to make the best of your time abroad. Students have generally found between 12 to 15 credits to be a manageable amount.

Be aware that lecture and class styles vary greatly around the world. In the U.S., you are probably used to a lot of homework. Upon starting classes, you may at first be delighted that this is often not the case abroad. One thing you'll notice, though, is that it can be easy to get off track without daily homework. So, don't wait until the end of the semester to attend class, take good notes, join study groups and meet with the professor. Making an effort to connect with your classmates can also be very beneficial (on many levels!), as they can help you understand the style and expectations of the class, and potentially also with understanding the material if you are taking classes in a second language.

I asked AJ, another intern at UW-P Education Abroad who studied in the Netherlands, about his experiences with this. He said "when I was abroad I had to adapt to the different style by studying more on my own.You sort of have to make homework for yourself. If you didn't, you wouldn't know anything by exam time. A lot of exchange students just tried to study in the last week, and that didn't really turn out for them."

Besides lack of daily homework, class structure can also be seemingly more relaxed (or more rigid) in other ways as well. In Europe, class offerings and schedules are not always posted online ahead of time. At Goethe, I had to do a lot of detective work, of sorts, in order to find out which classes were available, as well as take the initiative to contact the professor and find out if the class would be suitable for an exchange student. Attendance was usually not taken, and while German students registered for the classes online, I opted to arrange it with the professor instead. The most important thing to remember, as with all aspects of study abroad, is to check those expectations at the door. The school system is not likely to function as it does in the U.S. and you will have to adapt to the system, not the other way around.

That being said, it never hurts to go back to the basics, i.e. Study Skills 101. Here are some tips that may be helpful to remember:

1) Set study goals. As AJ found at Windesheim, it is helpful to give yourself "homework". Set goals of studying a little everyday, or at least every week. Consistency is your friend! One good strategy is to take 10-15 minutes before or after every class to review notes. It may not seem like much, but it adds up to a better understanding of the material.

2) Learn to say no. Your time spent studying abroad is definitely a time when you should say yes to a lot of different opportunities, such as weekend travel excursions, opportunities to meet new people, explore new places and other exciting happenings. Staying open minded and participating can lead to many unexpectedly wonderful experiences. However, when it comes to academics, remembering how to say no can be very useful to staying on top of your classes. If you find yourself out every night of the week, and not getting any work done, maybe it's time to step back and reclaim a few of those nights.

3) Set priorities. Remind yourself of your study goals, and that your primary role is still as a student. It can be easy to let loose while abroad, but take some time to remember the big picture, such as what you are trying to accomplish overall in your education.

4) Take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself can contribute to overall balance on your study abroad. Take advantage of those awesome opportunities to travel and meet people, but also remember to get plenty of rest, and eat a healthy diet (lots of fruit, veg, protein, water). A little exercise and sunlight won't hurt either!

Keep on track with those academics to avoid feeling like this!

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